Masahiro Tanaka and Solo Home Run Situations
Masahiro Tanaka joined the ever-growing list of pitchers to hit the Disabled List with UCL injuries. Diagnosed with a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow, the Yankees ace will undergo the same platelet-rich-plasma procedure Dylan Bundy attempted before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Tanaka may or may not recover in time to be a factor in the AL East this year, but his game and pitch usage deserve further review. Given the nature of Solo Home Run situations, was Tanaka in greater risk of injury?
Masahiro Tanaka is different than the other pitchers in the Solo Home Run series. In Japan, Tanaka threw 1315 innings over seven seasons in the NPB League (ages 18-24). [Author’s note: if anyone can find Tanaka’s game logs, please let me know!] Tanaka’s workload in Japan has been discussed at length, notably by Tom Verducci, who found only three pitchers to throw as many innings as Tanaka at his age since 1961. None of the Solo Home Run rates included minor league breakdowns, but it’s worth acknowledging Tanaka’s additional mileage.
In Tanaka’s 18 starts, he logged 79 of his 129.1 innings in Solo Home Run situations- up or down one run, or tied. Of the seven pitchers examined to date, his Solo Home Run rate of 61.1% is the third lowest, above only Patrick Corbin and Martin Perez (each of whom struggled before making adjustments to become rotation mainstays). Tanaka, on the other hand, required minimal adjustments upon joining the Yankees staff and has been dominant. The righty worked to a 2.51 ERA (or 2.58 xFIP and 61 ERA- if you prefer) and allowed only 36 earned runs.
Tanaka has pitched better than expected: his ERA- is 4th-best in baseball. On the other hand, the Yankees have scored the 2nd-fewest runs in the AL. So what do Solo Home Run situations mean for Tanaka? The combination of few runs scored and fewer runs allowed creates a small margin for error. Still, Tanaka’s made the most of his below-average run support as he’s run his record to 12-4, creating a big disparity when comparing other AL pitchers by wins and run support.
In order to maintain his small margins for error, Masahiro Tanaka uses the strikeout as a major weapon. He has an elite K% with Darvish, Strasburg, and Scherzer his peers. And as you might have guessed, the elite K% comes with an elite out-pitch: his splitter. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs did a great job breaking down the “splits” even further, showing Tanaka knows how to make his splitter even more effective with runners in scoring position.
Simply put, Tanaka’s splitter is one of the most lethal off-speed pitches in the game. Tanaka and Mariners co-ace Hisashi Iwakuma own the two best splitters in MLB according to advanced metrics, though it’s important to look at pitch values per 100 pitches because Tanaka (as well as Iwakuma) throws the splitter more than anyone else in baseball. Using 2014 data, Tanaka threw the pitch nearly 26% of the time, jumping to 42.9% with two strikes.
It’s possible added usage of off-speed pitches with emphasis on the strikeout — especially in Solo Home Run situations, increases normal elbow stresses. High strikeout pitchers like Tanaka (splitter) and Jose Fernandez (curve) with significant jumps in off-speed pitches in two-strike counts is a red flag given the need for maximum effectiveness.
But Tanaka isn’t just a one-trick pony- he also uses his slider heavily. All told, he’s thrown a slider or splitter for 47% of his pitches this year. Such usage might work for relievers, but few starters figure to withstand the demands of high-intensity off-speed pitches every other pitch. With two strikes though, Tanaka’s usage of splitters and sliders was 63.5%.
Did Masahiro Tanaka’s Pitch Usage Indicate Red Flags?
Solo Home Run situations often call for strikeouts, and strikeouts usually require a go-to out pitch. For Fernandez and now Tanaka, we see two pitchers in high leverage situations rely on their off-speed pitches (which tend to cause more stress on elbows and shoulders) with greater frequency. Brian McCann caught all of Tanaka’s starts- should he be monitoring the heavy usage of Tanaka’s splitter and slider? Granted, McCann has had to learn an entire staff this season, and Tanaka knows what he’s capable of more than his catcher.
More likely, Tanaka kept going back to the well because he knew what was working. With such a dominant arsenal, Tanaka’s splitter and slider have proven the most effective offerings. As evidenced by his apology last Friday, where he expressed his disappointment in letting his teammates and fans down, Masahiro Tanaka felt the same thing most pitchers do when they first reach the Major Leagues: strive to prove themselves.
15 Jul 2014 / Ben Flajole /
Categories: MLB Analysis
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