Masahiro Tanaka is human. After opening his major league career with three months of brilliant outings, the New York Yankees rookie has hit a wall in July. On Tuesday night, the Cleveland Indians touched the AL All-Star up for five runs, 10 hits and the worst outing of his career.
Coupled with allowing nine hits and four earned runs last week in Minnesota, Tanaka has now allowed nine runs over his last two starts. Over 37 innings in the month of June, the 25-year-old allowed a total of nine runs and entered July with a streak of 16 consecutive quality starts.
Now, that run is over. With it has gone Tanaka's otherworldly dominance and unbeatable aura on a start-by-start basis. While there's little reason for New York baseball fans to panic, the idea of Tanaka simply breezing through his rookie campaign without losses, struggles or resistance has now been rendered a moot and ridiculous point.
With one start remaining before next week's All-Star Game, the Yankees need to find a way to get Tanaka back on the dominant track. For a team without anyone else capable of providing excellence in the rotation, the idea of Tanaka possibly hitting a rookie wall has to be a frightening thought for the AL East contenders.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, (New York) Daily News writer Mark Feinsand wondered if the league had caught up to Tanaka or if the $155 million pitcher has simply hit the proverbial rookie wall as the midway point of the summer arrives. As Feinsand wrote, it's ultimately irrelevant, because the team is counting on Tanaka to rebound soon.
It looks as if Tanaka's recent struggles are more about command and deception than the league suddenly hitting his best offerings. Over his last two outings, Tanaka has posted an 8-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, almost a point better than the 7.22 mark he took into play on July 8.
If the Yankees ace was nibbling or walking an excessive number of batters, it would be time to worry. Instead, it looks as if good left-handed hitters, specifically Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana of the Indians, have been able to detect his split-fingered fastball and lay off the devastating out pitch.
This could be a sign of scouts finally delivering usable and accurate reports on Tanaka's skill set, movement and deception. Or, the more likely scenario: Tanaka hasn't executed his delivery, pitches or set the opposition up enough over his last two outings.
Regardless of where Tanaka's struggles stem from, adjustments are now necessary. Even if you believe the Yankees landed a legitimate Cy Young contender in the first year of a lucrative, long-term deal, no starter avoids a clunker or two over the course of a 30-plus-start season.
The rookie wall was inevitable despite Tanaka's excellence, work ethic and skill level. In fact, considering that New York took home a victory in Tanaka's start last week against the Twins, sounding the alarm around a pitcher that owns a 2.51 ERA is probably over the top.
If not for a 2.10 ERA and 11-3 ledger across April, May and June, perhaps these two subpar outings would be lost in the shuffle of a long season. Even with New York's 24-hour news cycle and passionate fans, the idea of fretting over two below-average starts in early July isn't par for the course among Yankees supporters.
In this instance, Tanaka is a victim of his own early success in Major League Baseball and recent dominance in Japan. When baseball's latest international sensation began his Yankees career with a personal 6-0 ledger, it was natural to reference the impossible replication of the 24-0 win-loss record he posted during his final season in Japan.
After allowing four runs to Minnesota last week, Tanaka referenced his inability to hit spots and make the pitches he needed to throughout the game, per Feinsand. "This outing was one of my worst ones this season as far as hitting the spots and making pitches," Tanaka said.
Once again, location, not stuff or velocity, was the issue. When Tanaka was hitting his spots against the Twins and Indians, outs followed. As you watch him fight through this stretch, look for location and command on Sunday night against the Baltimore Orioles.
Over the next few days, some fans might panic or claim that Tanaka is tired due to pitching more often in America than he did in Japan. While those are interesting talking points, don't be fooled into thinking that back-to-back non-quality starts are anything more than a rookie starter going through a rough patch commanding his pitches.
When a star sets the bar so high from the start of the season, there's almost nowhere to go but down as the summer transpires. For Tanaka and the Yankees, this is a reality of a full season in the big leagues. As the second half of the season commences, don't be surprised if one of baseball's best pitchers replicates his June success.
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