The Masahiro Tanaka era is under way.
Well, Tanaka ultimately put a damper on an otherwise exciting night for Blue Jays fans, as the right-hander picked up his first career win behind seven strong innings of two-run ball in which he scattered six hits and recorded eight strikeouts without issuing a walk.
Even though it wasn’t a particularly clean or efficient outing, Tanaka still showcased his customary high-end combination of pure stuff and command, and he gave baseball fans from around the world an idea of what to expect this season moving forward.
Tanaka’s career got off to an inauspicious start, as the first batter of the game, Melky Cabrera, homered to right-center field on a 1-1 changeup that lingered up in the zone.
Yet, the right-hander managed to rebound after Cabrera’s leadoff blast, as he retired Colby Rasmus on a groundout to first base and then struck out both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
Specifically, Tanaka caught Bautista looking on a 1-2 slider that registered at 86 mph, and then got the next batter, Encarnacion, to flail at the exact same pitch in the exact same count.
Tanaka ran into trouble in the second inning, allowing two more runs (one earned) on three hits and a costly Mark Teixeira error, and he needed 26 pitches to complete the frame. However, Tanaka once again bounced back and escaped further damage, using his devastating splitter to strike out Cabrera, and then a well-located, backdoor slider to fan Rasmus.
Tanaka began to settle in during the third inning, as he allowed a ringing double to Encarnacion but otherwise breezed through the heart of Toronto’s order. Still, after throwing 58 pitches (40 strikes) through the first three innings, it seemed as though Tanaka might be ticketed for an early exit in his Major League debut.
Tanaka was absolutely brilliant on Friday over his final four frames and looked more like the pitcher we all fell in love with during spring training.
The rookie concluded his debut with four consecutive 1-2-3 innings, facing the minimum 12 batters during that span, and, more importantly, he did so by throwing only 39 pitches. Not a single one of those final 12 batters made hard contact against Tanaka, and only three managed to get the ball out of the infield.
Tanaka's stuff on Friday night was right in line with what he showed during spring training. The right-hander’s fastball sat comfortably in the low 90s for the duration of his start and topped out at 95.2 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. However, Tanaka’s fastball command was noticeably absent from the onset of the game, so it’s not surprising he induced only one whiff in the 20 swings generated by the pitch.
Tanaka also showed an advanced feel for both his curveball and slider in the outing, as he found the strike zone with 23 of 34 breaking balls and generated four whiffs out of a total of 13 swings. The right-hander’s slider, which averaged 85.8 mph on the night and registered as high as 88.8 mph, was the more effective of the two pitches, and it showed through his ability to throw it for a strike 65.2 percent of the time (15-of-23).
Lastly, an analysis of Tanaka’s debut wouldn’t be complete without showing some obligatory love for his other-worldly splitter. However, it admittedly was difficult to discern his splitter from his changeup at various points during the game, as even the Brooks Baseball data labeled his splitter as a changeup based on velocity and movement.
Yet, after watching Tanaka’s outings in spring training, we already had an idea prior to his debut that the splitter typically registers in the upper 80s. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that Tanaka’s splitter was categorized as a changeup by Brooks Baseball.
According to their data, the right-hander threw 9-of-12 splitters for a strike on Friday night, with six of those strikes coming as the result of a whiff.
The reason I broke down Tanaka’s start into two parts (innings 1-3 and 4-7) is because the right-hander was a completely different pitcher during the second half of the outing.
Tanaka failed to establish his fastball early in the game, starting eight of the first 11 Blue Jays he faced with a secondary offering. Even when Tanaka got ahead with a first-pitch strike he struggled to efficiently build the count in his favor, and at times it seemed as though he was more interested in using his curveball and slider to toy with opposing hitters and pick at the edges of the strike zone. As a result, Tanaka’s fastball command was inconsistent over the first three innings, with the right-hander either missing off or over the plate numerous times.
Whether it was related to his nerves or suddenly having to cope with the fact that he allowed a home run to the first batter of his career, Tanaka’s pace on the mound was noticeably off early in the game—especially when compared to his pace in spring training, when he basically would get the ball, get on the rubber and let it rip—as everything he did seemed unnecessarily deliberate and prevented him from establishing a rhythm.
However, as I mentioned earlier, the right-hander eventually settled in and looked like his spring self in his final four innings.
Tanaka's ability to recover from the shaky start and make adjustments throughout the game impressed manager Joe Girardi, via David Waldstein of The New York Times: “It’s one thing to get yourself back on track in spring training. But this opening day, huge crowd, all the excitement from the Toronto fans. And he was able to fix his mistakes early on, and that’s the sign of a mature pitcher.”
Besides establishing a healthier and quicker pace on the mound, Tanaka also turned to his fastball more often, using the pitch to aggressively attack right- and left-handed batters to both sides of the plate. The adjustment to his game plan in turn allowed Tanaka to sequence his splitter and slider more effectively as the game unfolded, and he ultimately retired the final 12 batters he faced.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Tanaka’s debut on Friday was his ability to throw a first-pitch strike with essentially his entire arsenal. Specifically, he notched a strike with his first pitch against 18 of the 27 batters faced over seven innings; nine of those pitches were fastballs, five were show-me curveballs and four were sliders.
With his debut jitters out of the way and a win under his belt, Tanaka should be more effective out of the gate in his next start. Granted the 25-year-old was very impressive overall and exhibited tremendous poise and resiliency as the game unfolded, but there were definitely aspects of his performance, such as his tentative approach with the fastball in the early innings, that can be improved.