Make that three spring appearances for Masahiro Tanaka, as well as some more material for the scouting notebook.
After making a relief appearance and a start each against the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Yankees' $175 million investment took on the Atlanta Braves Sunday afternoon at George M. Steinbrenner field. This was a to be a bigger challenge, as the Braves were the National League's fourth-best run-scoring team in 2013.
And Atlanta didn't hold back. The lineup Tanaka took on featured regulars like Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons, as well as Ryan Doumit and well-regarded prospect Tommy La Stella.
The plan, as reported by Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News, was for Tanaka to go either five innings or throw 75 pitches. The latter came first, and Tanaka's day ended with the following line score:
The thing that stands out the most is the six strikeouts Tanaka racked up in his 4.1 innings. That should be taken for what it's worth, as a) duh, it's spring training and b) these are the Braves. Per FanGraphs, the Braves were third in strikeout percentage in 2013.
Still, the results say it was a productive day at the office for the Japanese right-hander. More importantly, so does the eye test.
As you would expect, Tanaka worked primarily off his hard stuff. He sat mainly in the 88-90 range with his velocity, but there were times when he reached back for 92 and 93.
There was also one sequence in the third where Tanaka seemed to reach back for even more than that. After getting ahead of B.J. Upton with a slider on the outside corner, Tanaka blew a fastball by him on 0-1 and then another on 0-2. The YES Network gun apparently fell asleep on both pitches, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were as fast as 94 or 95 miles per hour.
Cue this observation by Mike Axisa of RiverAveBlues.com:
Read a lot about Tanaka holding something back and saving it for big spots. Saw it that inning.— Mike Axisa (@mikeaxisa) March 16, 2014
With runners on first and second after a bunt single by Tyler Greene and a walk to Heyward and only one out in the inning, Tanaka was indeed in a big spot. It's situations like those where I'd expect to see him feature his best velocity.
However, Sunday's outing wasn't all about Tanaka's velocity.
There was a point during the YES broadcast where the announcers mentioned how the movement of Tanaka's hard stuff has been a pleasant surprise given all we heard about his fastball being straight as an arrow. But while Tanaka's hard stuff did seem to have some good movement Sunday, I'm not sure it was his four-seam fastball that was doing the moving.
Instead, it seemed to me that Tanaka was throwing mainly two-seamers and cutters. And if he's only going to sit in the 88-90 range, that's exactly what he should be doing as far as yours truly is concerned.
It's like this: If Tanaka can't have above-average velocity on every pitch, then good movement is the next best thing. And while the movement on Tanaka's hard stuff Sunday wasn't exactly devastating, that it was at least there will do for good enough.
Speaking of movement, maybe the best pitch Tanaka featured Sunday was his slider. It's a pitch that isn't as well regarded as his splitter, but one thing Tanaka showed against the Braves is that he can definitely spot it on the outside corner against right-handed batters.
Tanaka got more than a few called strikes doing that, and his final pitch of the day was a slider just off the outside edge that Greene whiffed on for strike three. They weren't all perfect—Simmons drove a hanger to deep left field in the third inning that the wind might have kept in the yard—but that was one of many sliders Tanaka threw that had me convinced it will be a good pitch for him against righty hitters.
I'm not so sure about Tanaka's curveball, though. He only threw a couple of them Sunday, and that was probably for the best. He did throw a couple of good ones later in the game (one to La Stella and another to Greene), but the bulk of the curves he threw just sort of spun up to the plate. It definitely looks like the weaker of his two breaking balls.
That means one of two things. Either Tanaka's going to have to work on his curveball, or he can just scrap it. It may come to that, as he doesn't need it against right-handed batters as long as he has his slider, and his money pitch against left-handed batters is surely going to be his splitter.
Speaking of which, the splitter once again looked like a pitch that's going to get Tanaka quite a few strikeouts against lefty batters. He got Freeman to whiff on a good one in the first inning and Doumit to flail on one in the second inning. Both went after splitters down below the strike zone.
Between the good work Tanaka did with his slider and splitter Sunday, it's no wonder Yanks catcher Brian McCann was raving to Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today:
After catching him for the second time this spring, Brian McCann says Tanaka has "swing-and-miss stuff with four pitches. He's special."— Jorge L. Ortiz (@jorgelortiz) March 16, 2014
However, it's worth noting that Tanaka used his splitter in other ways Sunday. There were times when he took a little off it and was able to throw it for called strikes, with the best of the bunch being a splitter that he put on the inside corner against the righty-hitting Ernesto Mejia in the third for a swinging third strike.
Mind you, it wasn't a perfect day for Tanaka's splitter either. He did hang one on an 0-2 pitch to B.J. Upton in the first inning that got hit back up the middle for a single. Also, some of the other mini-splitters Tanaka threw were pitches that could easily have been taken for a ride.
As such, taking a little bit off his splitter for the sake of getting it in the zone is a trick that Tanaka should probably go to sparingly once the games start to count. If he goes to that well too much, he could find himself learning the hard way that major league hitters are quick to adjust.
The other not-so-awesome part of Tanaka's start was that his fastball command was hit or miss, which was also the case in his start against the Phillies. Fellow MLB Lead Writer Adam Wells wrote that Tanaka's fastball was "all over the place" in that one.
That's probably too extreme to describe the fastball command Tanaka had against the Braves, but it was definitely inconsistent. Especially in the fourth inning, as some sudden wildness with his fastball command led to walk of Uggla and then an RBI double by La Stella. That pitch was supposed to be around La Stella's knees, but it ended up around his belt.
The optimist in me says not to worry too much about this, especially considering how Tanaka seemed to be spending much of the day working with his two-seamer and cutter rather than his four-seamer. But at the same time, the pessimist in me knows that plus fastball command is supposed to be one of Tanaka's calling cards.
So, basically, I can see where Tanaka is coming from with this remark:
Tanaka said, "I need to work on more CONSISTENT pitching throughout the game," but the interpreter sort of missed it.— IchiroReport (@IchiroReport) March 16, 2014
All in all, I'd say he still has some things to work on. Apparently, he would agree.
Still, while his third outing of the spring wasn't a roaring success, it was definitely another solid one. Tanaka once again showed that he has the stuff to compete against major league hitters, and there's plenty to like with how he's only allowed two runs and struck out 10 in 9.1 innings of work so far this spring.
Tanaka hasn't really proven anything yet, of course, but I can think of worse places for him to be in thus far in his big league career.
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