NY Yankees: Has Masahiro Tanaka thrown his last pitch in pinstripes?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 17: Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees in action against the Houston Astros in game four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 17, 2019 in New York City. Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees 8-3. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 17: Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees in action against the Houston Astros in game four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 17, 2019 in New York City. Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees 8-3. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Masahiro Tanaka may have thrown his last pitch with the New York Yankees.

The New York Yankees have an important decision to make on their long-time Japanese hurler, Masahiro Tanaka, this offseason.

Tanaka enters the 2020-21 offseason as a free agent for the first time in his MLB career and to this point, the crafty right-hander has had his fair share of consistencies and shortcomings that you bet the Yanks will take long looks at in deciding what the right move is.

The 31, soon-to-be 32-year-old finished the shortened 2020 season with a 3-3 record, 3.56 ERA, and 44 strikeouts in 48 innings of work.

His ERA, the best it’s been since 2016, was one of the more surprising things about the Yankees as a team this season, and Tanaka, at times, appeared to have seen a revitalization in his game with an uptick in average velocity from 92.2 mph and 91.7 mph on the fastball in 2018-19 to 92.6 mph this season- the best his fastball velocity has been since 2017.

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We also saw Tanaka bump his usage of his secondary pitches not just this year, but last year as well. And I think this fact will lead us to a logical conclusion on what the Yanks should do with Tanaka moving forward.

According to FanGraphs, in 2018, Tanaka clocked in with a 21.4% four-seam fastball usage, a 31.1% splitter usage, and a 33.4% slider usage (his three main pitches).

Then last year, we saw his four-seam usage jump to 27.1% and his slider usage to 36.2% and then his splitter usage drop a few ticks to 28.4%.

This season, we had Tanaka use his four-seamer 24.1% of the time (so, a droppage from 2019), his splitter 24.6% of the time (an even further drop from 2019), and his slider 37.5% of the time (a slight uptick from 2019).

With that all in mind, it’s also worth-noting that Tanaka averaged about 19.7% usage on his sinker the first four years of his MLB career and since 2017, that average has plummeted to 5.1% the next three years of his career up to this point in time.

And even in his 2017 season where he averaged 92.9 mph on the fastball, his fastball usage was at 10.8% as opposed to his sinker usage at 17.3%. So, in essence, it’s fair to say Tanaka had the best average velocity on his fastball in his career this season when you look at his earlier years where he threw way more sinkers than four-seams.

Tanaka may just be throwing the hardest he’s thrown in his MLB tenure. And now we also have data that says every year Tanaka boosts his slider use percentage and has seemingly reaped the benefits of better and better seasons.

I think Tanaka was great this year for the most part. To me, he seemed to have an edge about him on the mound where he knew he could get every batter he faced out with the lethal combination of the fastball and slider with the threat of the splitter, which everybody is looking to try to combat when they get up to the plate, peppered in that mix as well.

In an era of pitching where if you can’t throw 95 mph, you’re not going to make it, Tanaka presents a very unique look to his game in that he’s a straight-forward righty with the classic Japanese start/stop motion, while also fooling batters more often than not and pounding the bottom part of the zone.

Baseball Savant puts Tanaka in the 71st percentile in terms of whiff percentage. For a right-hander that sits in the 91-92 mph range, I find it incredible just how unhittable he can look at times where the bottom always seems to drop out of his pitches last-second.

Yes, he’s susceptible at times to the home run ball, but then again, so was Gerrit Cole this year and Cole tops him in velocity and horsepower by a mile. One thing I’ve always learned from my pitching coaches was to keep the ball low and good things will happen. I believe Tanaka does as good a job at that as anybody in baseball.

With all the good that you may or may not have been aware of with Tanaka, there are also some red flags to take into consideration if you’re the Yankees.

And no, I’m not talking about how bad he was in the playoffs this year. I don’t buy the narrative that Tanaka’s reign as a great postseason pitcher is over.

He got screwed by MLB in that Indians game where they messed around with the start times around a rain delay. Can a guy get a pass for a rainy playoff game that the team actually won when all he’s done up until then is hammer it down in the postseason?

“But what about his Rays start?”

Tanaka owns the Rays. He was 11-4 with a 3.21 ERA and 130 Ks in 126.1 IP before this debacle of a start everybody is harping on. Playoff Tanaka is still a thing as far as I’m concerned.

What should give us pause is his health and the stability of his elbow.

For the jump in velocity we saw out of Tanaka this season, he’s also still pretty fresh off of a close call with a UCL injury. Right before Spring Training, Tanaka was nursing a partial UCL tear and appeared to be done for the 2020 season because with UCL injuries, all of us as baseball lovers know Tommy John surgery is probably on the horizon.

By some miracle, the Yankee righty was able to nurse it properly and avoid major surgery to which he went on to pitch his entire 10-game itinerary in 2020. That doesn’t mean Tanaka is out of the woods with this thing, especially being that he’s now in his early 30s.

So, when deciding what to do with the soon-to-be 32-year-old, the Yanks are going to have to be as sure as they can be when it comes to just how well Tanaka’s arm can hold up over the next several years.

When it comes to preparing for injuries, the New York Yankees are saddled with worrying about not just Tanaka but James Paxton as well. Both guys battled through injuries this year whether it be Spring Training or the regular season.

For my money, Tanaka would be the safer bet of the two since he has proven his injury hasn’t slowed him down yet whereas with Paxton, we not only saw him go down twice this year and need major recovery, but even when he was in the rotation, his velocity plummeted from where we’re used to seeing it.

If I know the Yankees like I think I know the Yankees, they’re going to try and re-sign both of these guys. The competition simply isn’t there from my vantage point.

In terms of free agent starting pitchers on the market this offseason, there are only a handful that are as good as or better than Tanaka in my opinion, and those guys are (other than Tanaka and Paxton) Trevor Bauer who’s probably going to win a CY Young this year, Marcus Stroman, and I’ll even throw Robbie Ray in there as well because the Yanks have been eyeing him for awhile.

Bauer really doesn’t seem like a fit in New York. He’s too free a spirit and doesn’t he hate Gerrit Cole on top of that?

Stroman is a New York guy, but with the Mets losing a bunch of starters this offseason like Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, I would imagine they’re going to be going pretty hard at Stroman to re-sign, especially with Noah Syndergaard recovering from Tommy John. I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of Stro in a Mets uniform either, so you’d have to imagine they don’t want to lose out on him while they have him in town.

Robbie Ray walks too many guys. I’m sorry. His beard and hair aren’t going to be that big an issue. I mean, even Cole kept his long hair when he came to town. But compared to a guy like Tanaka who walks nobody, Ray just doesn’t cut it on the field.

It seems pretty clear to me that the two guys the Yankees are going to try and target are going to be their own guys in Tanaka and Paxton.

But whereas Paxton seems to be showing all the signs of needing a major surgery in the very near future, Tanaka has staved off that threat for now. And on top of that, he also sports all the positives I just told you about in regards to his numbers.

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Tanaka is not a big spin guy. He’s not a Gerrit Cole full-fledged number one who strikes out everybody. But he’s a solid two and when Luis Severino comes back and is 100%, he’s going to slide down and be perhaps the best three in the game. Masahiro Tanaka belongs in a New York Yankees uniform and I believe if he can keep his arm healthy, he’s going to continue to be an invaluable part of this organization.