Masahiro Tanaka’s Right Elbow Carries Huge Burden


Masahiro Tanaka lived up to the enormous hype that surrounded him in 2014. His right elbow, however, did not. The New York Yankees’ right-hander went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA. He sustained a 9.31 K/9 rate and ate up 136 1/3 innings of work. Why the low inning total? Like many modern day pitchers, Tanaka’s elbow let him down.

In turn, the Yankees’ season took a downward trajectory. They were also hurt by CC Sabathia‘s injury issues. On the positive side, Tanaka recently threw 21 pitches during a bullpen session. He’s hopeful that his pre-injury form can be established again. For the 2015 season, Tanaka has to be fully healthy and completely dominant in order for the Yankees to have hopes of October baseball.

This prospect is incredibly scary. Despite usually requiring Tommy John surgery for the type of injury Tanaka suffered, he opted to rehab and avoid going under the knife. For a pitcher whose arsenal includes a changeup, slider, curveball and splitter, Tanaka might unfortunately have an elbow on the verge of catastrophic deterioration.

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  • That’s what makes this story intriguing. Assume Tanaka dominates early in 2015 while resembling a Cy Young hardware type of pitcher. The critics praise him and pundits start pegging the Yankees return to glory behind Tanaka and the pitching staff. During this potential run, it would be hard to avoid pondering the inevitability of Tanaka’s elbow snapping. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room.

    One more slider. One more splitter. When will that “one last” breaking ball lead to Tanaka’s end? A pitch that could signifiy the point of no return. For the Yankees, this can’t happen in 2015. They require an All-Star level Tanaka and an acceptable Sabathia. Anything less will be majorly problematic.

    Let’s examine Tanaka’s arsenal further. FanGraphs reveals that Tanaka only threw his fastball about 41% of the time in 2014. That opened the door for his slew of nasty offerings. Here’s an aspect of pitching that’s overly forgotten. Breaking ball nastiness might build high strikeout totals and awe the audience, but fastball regularity helps long-term careers ensue.

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    Are there exceptions? Of course. Randy Johnson had a marvelously long career in spite of frequently tossing disgusting sliders. In the case of Tanaka, though, he had a pre-MLB career in Japan. He’s been chucking splitters and alarmingly difficult to hit variations of it since being a teenager. Longevity already is against him.

    At 26-years-old, Tanaka admirers must hope that Japan’s innings don’t totally catch up to him until well into his 30’s. 2015 would be a horrible time for ultimate decline to sink in. My words may sound overtly ominous, but something about Tanaka rehabbing rather than electing for surgery sounds worrisome. 60% of his pitches being breaking balls could shatter an already injury-susceptible elbow.

    If the Yankees have playoff aspirations this season, Tanaka’s elbow will be the deciding factor. It can’t falter. It definitely can’t snap. With $22-23 million owed to Tanaka annually through 2020, any issues in 2015 will be indicative of a reckless long-term investment. Tanaka simply has to perform throughout this season to alter the narrative.

    Next: Clubs, Not Players Winning 2015 Arbitration Hearings