Don't Panic About Masahiro Tanaka Just Yet

The Yankees right-hander is off to a rough start in 2017. What's going on with him, and can he recover?

Baseball can be a funny game.

The New York Yankees inked right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a massive contract prior to the 2014 season, and for the most part, he's done a nice job of earning those big bucks.

Tanaka has been dinged up quite a bit during his early tenure as a Yankee -- he was diagnosed with a partially torn elbow ligament, but elected not to have surgery. Prior the 2016 season, he underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, which was followed by him missing last year some starts due to a forearm strain. Even with those injuries, he kept producing.

Tanaka was presumably healthy heading into 2017, and in a glimpse at some more traditional metrics, he's put together his worst season to date, and full on panic mode is setting in.

Season Innings Pitched ERA Strikeout Rate Walk Rate
2014 136.1 2.77 26.8% 3.9%
2015 154.0 3.51 22.8% 4.4%
2016 199.2 3.07 20.5% 4.5%
2017 48.0 6.56 17.8% 6.9%

So for fantasy owners -- given that Tanaka was pretty costly, going around the 80th pick in NFBC drafts -- is it time to be worried and jump ship? Let's take a deeper dive and find out.

The Bad

Massive blasts like the one below from Corey Dickerson have rightfully given folks some pause. Tanaka has already allowed 13 homers this year after allowing just 22 all of last year, which spanned 199 2/3 innings.

And perhaps what's even scarier is he's especially getting hammered by right-handed batters. That's definitely not what we are used to seeing from the Japanese import.

Season wOBA Hard-Hit Rate Strikeout Rate Walk Rate
2014 .302 36.7% 30.8% 4.5%
2015 .280 31.1% 21.3% 4.1%
2016 .277 32.2% 20.7% 5.3%
2017 .441 35.7% 18.0% 7.7%

What's driving this lack of performance? It looks like it may be declining effectiveness in his cutter, which he has started throwing a ton in 2017. The table below shows Tanaka's usage by pitch as a member of the Yankees.

His cutter usage has nearly doubled from last season, and if it were an effective weapon, that would be great. But in looking at the results from data over at Brooks Baseball, it seems to be a pretty poor choice. Batters are hitting .353 with a .765 slugging percentage against the offering this season. Yikes.

The Good

While the start of 2017 has been rough, there's actually some silver lining through it all.

Tanaka's 2017 SIERA is inflated from all of those homers, which shouldn't be much of a surprise. However, that home run-to-fly-ball rate (HR/FB%) is absurd and is certainly due to normalize. As a point of comparison, the worst qualified starting pitcher in this category from last season, Jaime Garcia, recorded a mark of 20.2%.

It's bound to come down, and so to should that SIERA.

The right-hander's swinging-strike rate is another positive, and is on pace to be a personal best.

Season Innings Pitched SIERA Swinging-Strike Rate HR/FB%
2014 136.1 2.67 13.4% 14.0%
2015 154.0 3.36 11.4% 16.9%
2016 199.2 3.79 10.9% 12.0%
2017 48.0 4.32 12.6% 24.5%

Out of Tanaka's nine starts, it's also interesting to note that he's gotten absolutely hammered twice by the Tampa Bay Rays and once by the Houston Astros. If we separate those three appearances from his other six, things look a lot different.

Season Innings Pitched ERA Strikeout Rate
Everyone Else 40.2 3.07 17.5%
Rays + Astros 7.1 25.77 18.9%

Now, this can be a dangerous game to play, and the goal here isn't to manipulate the data to make a point. But it does speak to the fact that outside of getting hammered by the Astros and Rays, who both rank in the top-10 for team wOBA this season (sixth and ninth, respectively), Tanaka hasn't been terrible overall.

Against the Boston Red Sox, for example, who led the whole world last year in offense and rank 12th so far this year in team wOBA, he was incredibly nasty.

Moving Forward

If Tanaka is on your fantasy baseball squad, it hasn't been smooth sailing. A few bumpy outings have caused some concern, and that's fair. When Tanaka has been bad, he's been very, very bad, and he's probably punishing your ERA and WHIP categories.

But before we get too worked up, there's hope. A deeper look reveals there may be a few outliers to his struggles, and he could be on the path to rebounding, especially if he can get that cutter in order.

Or perhaps the wear and tear of a pile of innings, and a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, are starting to catch up to Tanaka. Either way, it's too early to hit the panic button. He'll get to face the Kansas City Royals in his next turn, who rank 28th in team wOBA at .289, and if he struggles there, it may be time to start getting worried.