Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Yankees can't afford a Tanaka slump

By David Schoenfield



Now, there's no need to panic just yet if you're a New York Yankees fan. I mean, even Bob Gibson allowed five runs in a game two times and six runs once back in 1968, the year that he posted a 1.12 ERA. Sandy Koufax won 27 games with a 1.73 ERA in 1966 but he allowed six runs in two innings to the lowly Mets in one start that year.

So great pitchers do have bad games.

But Masahiro Tanaka has looked a little less spectacular his past couple outings. On Tuesday, the Cleveland Indians got him for 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs, in 6 2/3 innings. The start before this one, against the Minnesota Twins, he allowed four runs and nine hits in seven innings with a season-low three strikeouts.

Masahiro Tanaka
If Masahiro Tanaka is a mere mortal, what does that make the Yankees?
It's probably just two mediocre starts in the middle of a great season, but this is New York we're talking about so we have to examine pitch data, analyze results and maybe question the meaning of life ... or at least ask: Is the league figuring out Tanaka?

And that is an important question for an obvious reason. The Yankees having been riding Tanaka all season long. Even after Tuesday's loss, they're 13-5 in games he starts and seven games under .500 when he doesn't start. If the Yankees are going to climb out of mediocrity they need Tanaka to keep pitching like the Cy Young candidate he has been and nothing less.

Cleveland's 10 hits in their 5-3 victory included five ground balls, three line drives, and line-drive home runs by Michael Brantley line-drive home run and Nick Swisher. To be fair, not everything was hit hard and Tanaka's other numbers lined up with his season totals. For example, he had a swing-and-miss rate of 28.6 percent, which is right at his season total of 29 percent. The Indians swung at 50 percent of his offerings, right at his season rate of 51 percent.

Digging deeper, however, we see that although he walked just one batter he had his third-worst strike rate (64.7 percent) and his lowest rate of pitches that were actually in the strike zone (36.4 percent compared to a season rate of 44.6 percent).

Those are a lot of numbers, but one thing in particular interests me. I had noticed the other day that hitters have been effective against Tanaka's fastball. For the season, they're hitting .318/.369/.551 in plate appearances ending in his fastball; of 91 qualified starters that's the 84th highest slugging percentage allowed on fastballs, and he has allowed 11 home runs on fastballs. Only five starters have allowed more -- Bartolo Colon, Chris Young, Wade Miley, Wei-Yin Chen and Marco Estrada. Not exactly the cream of the crop there.

Compare those 11 home runs to Felix Hernandez, who will likely start the All-Star Game now over Tanaka since Tanaka will pitch Sunday and thus be ineligible to pitch: Felix has thrown 893 fastballs and hasn't allowed a home run on any of them.

That's all to get to this point: Tanaka's fastball has been hittable. Which gets to the second point: Are hitters going to adjust and start attacking Tanaka earlier in the count, trying to avoid that deadly two-strike splitter? It does appear that is already starting to happen. Tanaka's lowest average pitches per plate appearance have come in his past two starts, an indicator that batters are swinging earlier in the count.

Interestingly, both home runs on Tuesday came while Tanaka was ahead in the count: Swisher hit a 1-2 slider in the sixth inning and Brantley connected on an 0-1 fastball in the seventh.

All of this suggests that the next step would be for Tanaka to make some adjustments. He appeared to do this against Cleveland, as he threw his lowest percentage of fastballs in any start, 31.3 percent compared to his season average of 43.6 percent. He also threw his highest percentage of cutters at 14.1 percent, way above his season average of 3.4 percent.

Remember, as our ESPN colleague Curt Schilling likes to point out, the key to good pitching is all about fastball command. Get ahead with the fastball and then you can put hitters away with your off-speed pitches. Tanaka's fastball is vulnerable to the long ball, hitters are apparently starting to look for it earlier in the count, so he threw more cutters. This is the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of baseball.

The other issue to keep in mind with Tanaka: In Japan, he basically pitched once a week rather than once every five days. Here's his 2013 game log. He didn't start once all season on four days' rest and usually had six days between starts, so he has to adjust to a different kind of schedule and workload.

Ultimately, I think he will. His style of pitching, including the splitter, is similar to Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, who has excelled since joining the Mariners' rotation in July of 2012. Tanaka seemed to show Tuesday that he understands the importance of changing up his pattern a bit. That's part of what makes guys like Hernandez or Adam Wainwright so effective. Hitters expect Hernandez's changeup with two strikes, but there are games in which he'll focus on the fastball more with two strikes. Wainwright threw his season-high percentage of curveballs in his most recent start; the outing before he threw a season-high percentage of fastballs. Cat and mouse.

As for the Yankees, it's pretty clear why they need Tanaka to have a monster season. They're not a very good team without him. Brian McCann has been a disaster as a free-agent signing, which shouldn't have been that big of a surprise given his decline in recent seasons. Carlos Beltran has been awful but this is what can happen to 37-year-olds. Same with the recently departed Alfonso Soriano. There is no easy solution to fixing this offense.

Which puts a huge amount of importance on Tanaka. Maybe he's not quite the pitcher who had a 1.99 ERA through June 17, but he has the stuff to post a sub-3.00 ERA. So I'm just reading this as a blip; he'll be fine.

But I can't say that about the rest of the team. For the second straight season -- and the first time since 1992-1993 -- the Yankees will miss the playoffs.