It's rare that a spring training game becomes a highly-publicized event, but that's exactly what happened with Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday.
The New York Yankees' newest prize took to the mound for the second time this spring, making his first start against the Philadelphia Phillies. It was the same team Tanaka faced in his debut on Saturday, when he threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts.
The Phillies didn't take it easy on Tanaka this time around, going with many of their regular players in the lineup, including Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, Dominic Brown and Carlos Ruiz.
That was a challenge Tanaka was looking forward to, saying prior to this game that he wanted to face the best that opposing teams had to offer (via Andrew Marchand, ESPN New York):
"I'll be able to face some of the better, or some of the first-string batters. I'd like to go up there and see how I can pitch against those batters."
After offering an initial scouting report following his 2014 debut, we will have another detailed look at what Tanaka did in his second outing, what he improved on, what still needs work and an overall impression of his performance.
In that first appearance, Tanaka threw 32 pitches (19 fastballs) and didn't have sharp command. He was able to throw strikes with the fastball early, then utilized the slider and curveball later in at-bats. His best pitch was an 0-2 splitter to strike out Ben Revere.
Thursday was more of the same, though the problems came early with his splitter and everything else followed. Before diving into the performance, here was Tanaka's stat line against the Phillies.
Tanaka bounced the split twice to leadoff hitter Freddy Galvis, with one of them actually being fouled off despite hitting about 10 feet in front of the plate.
Tanaka was able to show how devastating that splitter can be when he gets ahead, though consistency wasn't his friend. He got Chase Utley to an 0-2 count, threw him a fastball on the inner half before going to his bread-and-butter pitch to get his only strikeout of the day.
Utley had no chance to do anything with this particular splitter, as it started out just below his knees and died around the time it got to the plate.
The brilliance of the splitter is how well Tanaka hides the ball and his arm speed. There's not much separating it from the fastball, meaning hitters are going to assume the heater is coming, especially when they are down in the count and have to protect.
During the Phillies broadcast of the game, color analyst Larry Andersen was impressed with the way Tanaka used his splitter, saying "(Tanaka's) not afraid to use (the splitter). I think it's gonna be a great pitch for him."
Tanaka looked comfortable early, working quickly and throwing the fastball for strikes, before struggling near the end of his day. He got two groundball outs in the first inning, one on a great slider to Galvis that was set up by a fastball on the previous pitch, and another with an outside fastball on the black to Kevin Frandsen.
As Tristan Cockroft of ESPN.com noted, Tanaka's ability to keep the ball in the park is going to serve him well in Yankee Stadium.
In his second inning of work, Tanaka was mostly fastball-splitter. He did mix in a couple of sliders, but Marlon Byrd stuck his bat out on one to punch it into right-center field for a double on the breaking ball. It wasn't a bad pitch, on the outer half of the plate, but was left about knee high and Byrd was able to muscle it to the warning track.
Tanaka did start to leave the fastball up a little more this inning. It didn't hurt him, but because the pitch is straight, he can't live up there without giving up some extra-base hits.
On the plus side, the good version of his splitter came out once again. Dominic Brown was the victim, pounding the ball down into the dirt for an easy ground out.
He also broke out an excellent slider with tight spin and late break to Carlos Ruiz that even an elite MLB hitter wouldn't have been able to do anything with.
Tanaka's day ended after a third inning which started with him breaking out the off-speed stuff that he wasn't featuring much in the first two frames. He started John Mayberry off with a bad curveball that had no shape to it and was left way up in the zone, then followed that up with another splitter that bounced well in front of the plate.
Just to avoid getting behind too far, Tanaka went back to the old No. 1 for the next two pitches to get Mayberry on a ground out. He started Reid Brignac off with a curveball that looked better than the last one, showing decent shape and almost catching the black.
Brignac did catch up to a mistake fastball Tanaka left in the middle of the plate, but it was hit right at second baseman Brian Roberts for an easy out.
The good news with the fastball, per Erik Boland of New York Newsday, is Tanaka's velocity on Thursday was identical to his first appearance.
Throwing so many pitches over the middle of the plate eventually caught up to Tanaka, who gave up his first professional home run on a 3-1 fastball at Galvis' knees. That's the biggest problem area for Tanaka, though his lack of command on secondary pitches today was disturbing.
Specifically, the splitter looked awful most of the day. He threw a great one to Utley, but virtually every other time he tried to bring it, the pitch bounced well in front of the plate. This is supposed to be his out pitch in the big leagues, so it has to improve for him to succeed.
Interesting is the perfect way to describe Tanaka's performance on Wednesday. He wasn't bad, but definitely looked like a pitcher adjusting to throwing every fifth day and learning the intricacies of pitching to MLB hitters.
Former MLB ace Mark Mulder was, well, not too impressed:
Tanaka is good but his split is just like other good splits. Remember the gyro ball. That was also just a change up. #justsayin— Mark Mulder (@markmulder20) March 6, 2014
Fox Sports' Gabe Kapler brought up great points in his analysis of Tanaka's start, saying how the opposition was on its game against him.
Often, the first symptom of discomfort at the plate is the appearance of hands, feet and heads that look like they are attempting to catch up. The Phillies lineup looked slow and controlled in their actions.
The swings on the fastball backed up the above, much less tangible, assessment.
The fastball was all over the place, sitting in the middle of the plate and/or up too often, and the Phillies made him pay with two extra-base hits.
Tanaka did get one strikeout with the splitter, but for the most part, really struggled to throw it over the plate. If that pitch isn't working, it puts more pressure on the fastball command and slider to play up in order for him to be effective.
That said, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard was still impressed even without seeing Tanaka's best splitter today (h/t to David Lennon of Newsday.com)
Ryan Howard on Tanaka: "His split-finger is going to be the force to be reckoned with. Guys are going to have to make adjustments for it.”— David Lennon (@DPLennon) March 6, 2014
It is likely that Tanaka's next start will come in a simulated game as opposed to a third straight spring game, putting him in a lower-pressure environment to fine-tune his mechanics.
In general, he has plenty of time to work through any issues he is having with Opening Day still several weeks away.
*Note: Players are evaluated on the 20-80 scouting scale. 50 is average, 55 is above-average, 45 is below-average, etc.
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