Several things have changed for the Yankees going into 2018. For one, Giancarlo Stanton blasted 2 home runs in a Yankee uniform to go along with an RBI double in his AL debut. Going into game two in Toronto, many Yankees fans were hoping to see a change in 5th year pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka has by no means had a bad career. He's pitched to a 52-28 record with a 3.56 ERA and racked up 12.6 bWAR. The frustration for Yankees fans lie in Tanaka’s knack for giving up the long ball. Since his rookie year in 2014, Tanaka’s H/9 has gone up from 8.1 to 9.1, to go along with a HR/9 increase of 1.0 to 1.8. Tanaka’s stuff has never been the question after he tallied 194 strikeouts in just over 178 innings pitched last season. The stuff is clearly there, but the selection seems to get Tanaka in trouble from time to time.
Yankee fans will remember the rough start last season, with seemingly every other pitch from Tanaka being a get-me-over fastball or hanging splitter headed 400 feet in the wrong direction. In his first 77 innings pitched last season, Tanaka allowed an eye-popping 25% HR/FB and had a 6.34 ERA. It seemed Tanaka would get behind in counts and throw an easy fastball down the pipe or rely heavily on his splitter without burying it in the dirt. Through his last 101 innings, the adjustments were made. Tanaka worked a 3.54 ERA after raising his slider from 25% usage to 34% and lessening his fastball usage. His slider yielded a 20.8% whiff rate and 49.7 O-Swing%. By starting to bury his splitter more, Tanaka had a deadly 23.7% whiff rate and 55.8 O-Swing%. Although the home runs were still there, they were less frequent. It was clear to see that by throwing his below average fastball less, Tanaka was much more effective.
Flash forward to Friday night. It was easy for Yankees fans to write off Tanaka as the “same old Tanaka” after getting away with a hanging splitter to Donaldson and then allowing a solo blast to Randal Grichuk. After a 2 out double by Pillar in the second, Tanaka retired 13 straight to end his night. Tanaka attacked the zone, throwing 17 of 21 first pitch strikes to Toronto’s batters en route to 8 strikeouts and no walks in 6 innings of work. Perhaps because it was his first start of the year, Tanaka was pulled after 6 innings after just 77 pitches. The secret to Tanaka’s success tonight? His slider. According to Baseball Savant, Tanaka used his slider an eye-popping 51.9% of the time which led to a 27.5% whiff rate. It has become clear that the key to his success lies in the usage of his slider. Tanaka was able to pick up his first win of the season after unlikely heroes Tyler Wade and Brandon Drury had 2 RBIs a piece on the way to a 4-2 Yankees victory. Look for Tanaka to keep pumping in his slider, mixed with his deadly splitter, in order to maintain long term success this season for the Yankees.