The New York Yankees trotted Masahiro Tanaka out for his fourth appearance and third start of the spring on Saturday against the Minnesota Twins. It was his longest outing so far, both from innings (5.2) and pitch count (92), and the results were basically what they have been all spring—a lot of good and some things to work on.
One thing that Tanaka has been able to do all spring is get hitters to chase that split-finger fastball in the dirt when he gets ahead. There have been a few times his fastball command was lacking, allowing hitters to avoid swinging at any of his other pitches, but at least we know he can get a strikeout when it is needed.
Today was a huge step forward for Tanaka and the Yankees; the right-hander was facing most of Minnesota's regular lineup and had to turn it over three times, so they were able to get a look at what he was throwing and adjust to it as the game went on.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi emphasized how important this start was for Tanaka's development, telling Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York that "you want to see how he does when the pitch count gets really high. I think that's probably the best for him."
So how did Tanaka fare when the pitch count got really high? Here is our updated scouting report for the Japanese star for his latest outing.
The first inning started out shaky for Tanaka. He was trying to find a feel for the fastball and splitter, and he was able to get it before too much damage was done.
Brian Dozier led off the game with a double to right-center field on an outside fastball that caught too much of the plate. Tanaka then threw three straight balls to Kurt Suzuki before a get-me-over heater seemed to turn everything around.
Suzuki grounded out to the shortstop two pitches later. Tanaka retired Joe Mauer with a good cutter deep in his kitchen that the All-Star catcher couldn't do anything with except roll over on it, though Dozier did score.
Tanaka's best sequence of the inning came against Josh Willingham. The right-hander started him off with a fastball that was called for strike one, then after throwing a bad curveball he came back with a heater on the inner-half of the plate at the knees followed by one of those patented splitters to get the strikeout.
It became clear in the second inning Tanaka had found a groove, particularly in a sequence to Trevor Plouffe. He struck out Minnesota's third baseman on five pitches, showing a plus slider, burying a fastball deep in Plouffe's kitchen and putting him away with a splitter that started around belt high and ended around the thigh.
The third inning showed some cracks in Tanaka's armor, which was good for two reasons. It forced him to work without his best stuff, especially once the Twins got back to the top of their order, and showed how different he is from the stretch.
Twins hitters weren't biting on any of the sliders Tanaka tried to throw early in counts; some of them weren't close to being strikes, so he had to adjust to them.
Aaron Hicks led off the inning with a seeing-eye single. After he got on, Tanaka started to rush his delivery from the stretch and was running fastballs off the plate outside. That led to a single by Dozier, a crushed fastball by Suzuki that third baseman Scott Sizemore couldn't handle, and a four-pitch walk to Mauer that loaded the bases.
Willingham was going to wait for something hard because Tanaka wasn't locating anything else, so it wasn't a surprise to see the at-bat start with a good slider that was taken for a strike. The fastball came on the next pitch and Willingham just missed a grand slam by a few feet.
Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli told Brendan Kuty of NJ.com that Tanaka's two-seamer to Willingham didn't "go down, it's a problem got away with a two-seamer that didn't move the way it was supposed to."
These are the kinds of innings that you want to see Tanaka have. It's obviously not ideal, but pitching in the big leagues every fifth day isn't going to be a breeze. The 25-year-old has to show he's capable of working out of trouble, even when it's self-made or because of errors.
Girardi sounded happy about the way Tanaka was able to battle, telling Kuty "that's what you want to see. You're not going to have your great stuff every time you go out there. That's good."
Girardi also said that Tanaka will get one more spring start before the regular season starts, but didn't give an official date.
Being more efficient out of the stretch is another area Tanaka has to work on if he's going to be as successful as the Yankees need him to be. He wasn't comfortable throwing the fastball with runners on, so he tried to throw a lot of breaking balls and splitters that the Twins didn't bite on.
It sounds reductive to say that getting ahead with the first pitch is essential, but for Tanaka, it's especially true. All you have to do is look at how he bounced back in the fourth inning.
Tanaka needed just 12 pitches to get through the inning, getting ahead of all three hitters (Jason Kubel, Trevor Plouffe, Oswaldo Arcia) with the fastball, slider and splitter, respectively. It allows him to keep hitters off balance and throw pitches he trusts instead of what the count requires.
The Twins tried to take advantage of Tanaka's ability to get ahead by being aggressive in the fifth inning. Aaron Hicks flew out on a fastball on the second pitch. Pedro Florimon was overmatched and swung at two splitters, the second one giving Tanaka a strike out, and Dozier flew out deep to right field on the first pitch he saw.
Tanaka's day ended after 5.2 innings and 92 pitches. One of his best sequences of the game came in the sixth inning against Mauer, who took a fastball inside before getting another heater and a splitter for strikes. After another splitter just missed and a slider that was a borderline ball, Tanaka got Mauer to swing through a belt-high two-seam fastball.
After that Tanaka started to run out of gas, hitting Willingham with a pitch and leaving a fastball up and over the middle of the plate to Kubel for an RBI double.
There wasn't a radar gun on the MLB.tv broadcast I was watching, though the announcers did point out Tanaka's fastball was sitting in the 90-92 mph range early in the game.
Here are my scouting grades for Tanaka after his outing against the Twins, using the 20-80 scouting scale where 50 is average.
|Pitch/Tools||Scouting Grade (20-80 scale)|
My B/R colleague Zach Rymer had questions about Tanaka's curveball after his last start, and I completely agree. He only threw the pitch a handful of times today but showed little feel for it, and the Twins didn't even take it seriously when they saw it.
There did seem to be a strong desire, either on Tanaka's part or at the request of Yankees coaches, to throw the slider more often. He was using it in all counts and situations, seemingly trying to establish it as a get-ahead offering or strike-out weapon.
It's a good strategy to use in a spring game, because in the previous outings I have tracked Tanaka thus far, he's favored the fastball and splitter. But to get MLB hitters out consistently, you must have at least an average breaking ball.
Tanaka still struggles to throw the slider for strikes consistently, but when it was on today, it looked like a solid-average pitch with good tilt.
But that split-finger fastball is still Tanaka's bread and butter. By my count, four of his six strikeouts came on the splitter.
The trick to making the splitter work the way he needs it to is fastball command. There are still too many moments where the heater is catching a lot of the plate or not thrown where he wants to put it.
As one of Tanaka's final spring tuneups before the regular season starts, this was a qualified success. He put up good results and is still missing bats at a very strong rate, though concerns about the fastball command and inconsistent breaking balls will catch up to him against an MLB lineup.
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