Tanaka out of whacka

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps our expectations were too high. There were all kinds of predictions about what kind of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka would be once the Yankees pulled the trigger and signed the Japanese ace. Certainly, Brian Cashman tried to temper expectations by insisting he signed a Number 3 starter. But then Tanaka was lights out for his first fourteen starts and was 11-1. And expectations suddenly turned to the belief he would win every time he pitched.

Instead, Tanaka has lost three of his last four and fans are left with an expression of watching a fireworks display with no big finale. Naturally, not all of those losses were his fault. If you give up only two or three runs, you should have a reasonable chance to win and the Yankees’ offense wasn’t there for him. But the last two games have been concerning as the hits are starting to pile up and the strikeouts are trending down.

In Tanaka’s last two starts, he has given up more earned runs than he has recorded strikeouts. In his last two starts, he has given up 12.51 hits per nine innings. In his last two starts, he has a strikeout rate of 5.25 per nine innings. And he has not been above a strikeout per inning in his last four starts, something he did with regularity before.

One thing the numbers show is that his fastball has not been an effective pitch for him. David Cone mentioned something on the air last night that made sense when he said that it looked like batters were waiting for the first fastball they could see and were hacking at it. Fangraphs and PitchF/X both have Tanaka’s fastball in the negative worth category.

The numbers also show that batters who don’t wait around and put his first pitch in play are rewarded. When a batter puts the first pitch in play against Tanaka, he has a 1.036 OPS. So perhaps those “get me a strike, first pitches” are being belted around.

While it is true that Tanaka’s BABIP against in his two July starts is an extremely inflated .362, watching the two games hasn’t seemed like he is giving up a lot of cheap hits. On the contrary, bad luck does not seem to be a part of his late problems at all.

Advanced scouting in the Major Leagues has probably never been as thorough or as scientific. To be sure, teams have been studying Tanaka for trends and weaknesses. Both the Twins and the Indians seemed to have a very good plan of attack heading into their games against Tanaka. The Yankees will have to study those tendencies just as much to keep Tanaka ahead of the adjustment curve.

It has been a roller coaster ride of expectations for Yankee observers ever since the news was announced that the Yankees won the bidding war to get Masahiro Tanaka. At first, the expectations were kept low to not be disappointed when he was not some sort of savior. Then he won eleven of his first twelve decisions with an amazing strikeout rate and expectations went through the roof every time he pitched. It has been that ride that makes these last four starts a bit of a stomach punch. So what should our expectations be? Even when he is bad, he’s not overly bad and at times he is going to be very good. He is just not going to repeat that 11-1 start. That’s all.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.