Yankees Editorial: Is Masahiro Tanaka holding back?


New York Yankees Opening Day starter and ace Masahiro Tanaka has a well-known, highly documented, slight tear in his UCL of his pitching elbow.  He has had a very solid spring, and looks like the pitcher he was before suffering the injury.

Tanaka is known for his devastating slider and splitter, using his fastball more as a set-up pitch.  Tanaka felt that his four-seam fastball was one of his worst pitches, and is instead working on a two-seam fastball:

"The reason for the 88, 89, 90 [mph] is that I’m throwing two-seamers.  The reason I’m not throwing [four-seamers] much is that a lot of the four-seamers were being hit last year during the regular season.  So I’m doing this on purpose.  I’m working on the two-seamers purposely.  I’m not worried about where I’m at right now.  I’m not a pitcher that would throw 95 mph every single pitch.  I may get that maybe once or twice in a game.  Given that, I’m okay with where my velocity is at right now."

While Tanaka isn’t completely done throwing the pitch, he will use it less, and rely predominantly on a splitter, slider, cutter, curveball, and changeup repertoire.

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Joe Girardi doesn’t think Tanaka’s desire to increase the amount of two-seamers he throws will be an issue:

"I think there’s room for both of them.  Four-seam, you’re going to see more velocity; it might be something you climb the ladder with, do some different things.  But sometimes you get quick outs with sinkers and there’s more movement.  He’s just trying to improve his game."

Larry Rothschild agreed, adding that the biggest thing is Tanaka’s health:

"It’s not going to hurt him to have another type of fastball in the mix.  With his location, it can be an effective pitch.  He’s healthy, that’s the biggest thing.  I think he’s paced himself a little bit as far as really turning the ball loose.  He knew what he was doing and the purpose that he had behind it."

Tanaka struggled with his four-seam fastball a year ago, as opponents hit .317 against the pitch.  He was far better with his splitter, as opponents only hit .153 against it.  If his fastball improves, Tanaka could become even better than he was a year ago.

Tanaka added that he’s not trying to do too much, as he did a year ago:

"I’m trying to relax as much as I can when I’m throwing.  Maybe it might look different because I was trying to throw too, too hard last year during this time."

While Tanaka can improve pitches, none of this will matter if he cannot stay healthy.  Tanaka is the most important piece of the Yankees roster, even more so than the offense, as it is hard to see the season going anywhere should he go down.

Pedro Martinez doesn’t think that the Yankees ace can stay healthy:

"I don’t see him healthy all year, and I don’t see him healthy right now.  I’ll be brave enough to say he’s not completely healthy right now.  Tanaka is not healthy right now because I believe Tanaka is hesitant to let it go.  Tanaka is hanging all those breaking balls that he is throwing.  The only pitch he is committing to is the split finger and his problems are actually in a place where you don’t need to put any more stress, which is the elbow, and he’s hesitant.  He’s hesitating to throw his fastball and he’s hanging every breaking ball he’s throwing out there.  Plus his velocity is not there yet."

Martinez is entering the Hall of Fame, but he is wrong in his belief that the lack of velocity on Tanaka’s fastball is due to hesitation, as the Yankees star is attempting to develop his two-seam fastball.  Tanaka who has never met Martinez, dismissed these comments:

"First, I feel kind of honored because a player of that stature is talking about me.  I was a little surprised by that and kind of feel honored by that.  But I understand that everybody has their opinion about certain things, about the way I pitch.  But for me, I know where I’m at, and I feel good, so I think that’s the most important.  I feel good.  I was working on my two-seamer.  As for my mechanics, I was trying to have my body in a sense relax a little bit more when I’m throwing.  Maybe that is why it might look that way.  I’ve been throwing (97) in the past, and if I wanted to, I could.  I think Pedro was looking at specifically the last game that I was pitching, and obviously as you guys know too, my stuff wasn’t the sharpest that day.  The games prior to that, I felt my breaking balls were there.  In my bullpen, I’ve been throwing them pretty well, so I’m not really worried about that either.  Also, I was being able to get some swings for misses too, so I’m pretty confident where I am with my breaking balls."

While Tanaka will have his doubters after declining Tommy John surgery, how his arm feels and his confidence levels are what is important.  While his velocity is down from a year ago, he is not holding back.  The two-seamer is traditionally a slower pitch than the four-seamer, and his desire to add another fastball to his repertoire has led to the idea that he is holding back.

Tanaka was asked about Pedro’s ability to get through his first season as a baseball television analyst responding “I think he’ll be fine”.  The Yankees and their fans can only hope for the same of their ace.

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