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Masahiro Tanaka’s last start wasn’t one to write home about. Aaron Boone gave him the hook after he allowed two baserunners to start the fifth inning against Arizona. Everything snowballed quickly for Tanaka; he cruised through the first three frames only to labor in the fourth. And yet, despite his short outing, Tanaka had a much better split-finger. Hopefully, he has a good feel for it again tonight against Baltimore.

Without his patented splitter all season, Tanaka hasn’t garnered the results we’re all accustomed too. It appeared that rock bottom was two starts ago, when Boston lit him up for twelve (!) earned runs in 3.1 innings. Tanaka had absolutely no confidence in his signature offering that game; he threw his splitter just four times. At that point, something had to give.

The thirty year-old righty debuted a new grip in his following start vs. Arizona, as YES Network’s Jack Curry aptly pointed out. For reference, here’s a comparison to the grip last season:

You can tell by the MLB logo on the ball that this is a drastic change. Now, as noted at the outset of this post, Tanaka did not wind up having a spectacular outing against the Diamondbacks with his new grip. Yet, there’s no question that his splitter was much better, as was his confidence in the offering.

Of his 82 pitches against Arizona, he threw 27 splitters (32.9%). Opposing batters swung at 17 of them and whiffed six times (35.3 percent whiffs-per-swing). That’s precisely the kind of results we’ve come to expect from Tanaka’s split-finger.

Two things made Tanaka’s splitter harder to square up last start: movement and location. Per Statcast, it generated 34 inches of vertical drop on average, which is three more inches than usual this season. It’s also worth noting that it’s been around 34 inches of drop for his entire career, with this season as the exception. So, it was somewhat of a return to normalcy. Moreover, his location was on point:

Yeah, that’s exactly where a pitcher wants to throw a splitter. This season, he’s had a hard time burying his split (perhaps because of lost movement). His splitter heatmap from 2018 is what he’s striving for.

Interestingly, although this is not necessarily noticeable to the naked eye, Tanaka’s splitter looked different in spite of welcome results. He threw it a little slower than usual and averaged 85.9 MPH on the pitch. That’s down from 87.1 MPH, where he sat entering his last start. It’s also lower than his career velocity on the pitch: 87.2 MPH.

Further, Tanaka’s spin rate on the pitch was higher. It came it at 1,621 RPM vs. Arizona as compared to 1,587 RPM in prior outings in 2019. Additionally, that’s much higher than the 1,468 RPM mark last season. I’m not quite sure what to make of this, though my understanding is that a higher spin rate on a splitter would hinder it’s vertical drop. I suppose throwing his splitter a little slower helps negate his higher spin rate, but what do I know.

So, the velocity and spin rate aren’t quite the splitter of old, but if the pitch gets results like he did last time, who cares? Pending what happens tonight against the Orioles, this doesn’t look like some sort of accident. If this grip change continues to work out, it sure seems like Larry Rothschild was right:

It’s the seams…Overall, the baseball. I’ve thought that for quite a while…We have to find a grip that works…We’ve looked for it, but he’s felt it’s been more mechanical than the baseball. We’re looking at both sides of it. He made some adjustments and hopefully it’s gonna help.’

larry rothschild

From the sound of it, Tanaka was resistant to making a grip change. That’s understandable: it’s worked so well for him throughout his career. Nonetheless, Tanaka finally relented. Based on the right-hander’s comments following his last start, he hit a breaking point. He conceded, as Rothschild noted, that he didn’t want to make any drastic changes but ultimately acknowlegded that something had to give:

I’ve always, up to this point, tried to stick with the grip that I’ve always used for the splitter and made small adjustments in order to get the movement that I want. You get good results and bad results and the difference between the two are so big. When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, obviously, it’s been very bad. I thought I needed to make a different type adjustment here. That’s the biggest reason I went to something as drastic as changing the grip.

masahiro tanaka

I know it’s easy and popular to pile on Rothschild for many of the Yankees’ pitching woes, but this looks like an instance where he could be right. Time will tell of course, but if this new grip continues to net positive results, Tanaka should resemble his old self once again. Let’s see how his split fares against Baltimore tonight.