Masahiro Tanaka's Opening Day Flop Is Instant Reality Check for 2015 Yankees

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 6, 2015

Getty Images

If the New York Yankees want to return to the postseason in 2015, they're going to need Masahiro Tanaka to be the ace he was in 2014. That's pretty much non-negotiable.

Through one game, here's how that's going: not so good.

Tanaka drew the Yankees' Opening Day assignment against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday afternoon at Yankee Stadium and looked very little like the guy who posted a 2.77 ERA and 6.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014. In four innings, he allowed five runs (four earned) on two walks and five hits, one of which left the yard.

That got the Yankees off on the wrong foot in what went into the books as a 6-1 loss, and Katie Sharp of River Ave. Blues notes that it was the shortest Opening Day start by a Yankees hurler in 30 years:

If there's a silver lining, it's that the 26-year-old Japan native's right elbow didn't self-destruct. After missing a good chunk of 2014 with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament that wasn't repaired with Tommy John surgery, that was at least a secondary concern at the start of the day.

If there's another silver lining, it's that six of the 12 outs Tanaka got came via strikeout. As MLB GIFs can show, that had a lot to do with how his splitter and slider were generally in fine form:

But that's where the silver linings end for the Yankees. Though Tanaka's 2015 debut wasn't a total disaster, it's definitely a performance that belongs in the file marked "DISCOURAGING."

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 06:  Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees walks off the field after the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during Opening Day on April 6, 2015 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Get
Elsa/Getty Images

Let's get the obvious out of the way: No, Tanaka's wasn't good.

According to FanGraphs, Tanaka's average fastball in 2014 was 91.2 miles per hour, and it could get into the mid-90s when he needed it. It soon became clear on Monday that he wouldn't be showing that kind of velocity against the Blue Jays. Instead, he sat in the 88-90-mph range.

Now, Tanaka did warn us this was coming. As reported by Andy Martino of the New York Daily News, he told reporters that it was "not the wisest" to anticipate good velocity from him in 2015.

“I think, yes, because of the fact I’m throwing more two-seamers, that could make the velocity go down a bit," he explained. "As far as my pitching style and my mechanics, I’m trying to relax a little bit more when I’m throwing, so that might have to do with it a little bit.”

To this extent, it's not surprising that Tanaka's velocity was down on Monday. Two-seamers do indeed move slower than four-seamers, and the PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball confirms that his two-seamer was his primary fastball.

But in this case, "primary fastball" really only works in a relative sense.

Of the 82 pitches Tanaka threw, shockingly only 26 were fastballs. That's a fastball 31.7 percent of the time, which is quite a tumble from last year's rate of 40.6 percent.

Masahiro Tanaka's Pitch Selection
SplitFour-SeamTwo-SeamSplitterSlider
201421.319.525.821.4
Opening Day7.324.435.430.5
Brooks Baseball

In the long term, this makes it even harder to have faith in Tanaka's elbow holding up.

Splitters and sliders don't have the best reputation when it comes to elbow preservation. If he continues to throw more of them, his elbow might go from being in danger to being altogether doomed.

But that's not the only concern here. Tanaka has indicated that he doesn't have confidence in his fastball without his usual velocity, and that led to an approach with a perilously small margin for error.

Tanaka did a lot of nibbling on Opening Day.
Tanaka did a lot of nibbling on Opening Day.Elsa/Getty Images

The fastballs Tanaka did throw Monday adhered closely to the borders of the strike zone, and his splitter and slider usage was focused on getting swings and misses outside of the zone. Through it all, he looked like he had no interest whatsoever in testing himself within the strike zone.

This worked fine when he was getting ahead of hitters in the first two innings, but not so much when he started working from behind in his third and fourth innings of work.

He effectively permitted Blue Jays hitters to spit on his secondaries and sit fastball, and that led to a series of comfortable-looking at-bats.

In times like those, a pitcher is eventually going to have to challenge hitters in the zone with his fastball. And as Edwin Encarnacion made clear, that's where Tanaka's diminished velocity could really hurt him:

In all, here's how Tanaka's debut can be summed up: After looking like a rare pitcher with both command and power stuff in 2014, he spent Monday looking more like a Daisuke Matsuzaka-esque nibbler.

That's not a good transition, and Arizona Diamondbacks announcer Steve Berthiaume may speak for everyone in noting that it doesn't bode well:

Of course, this is where we can acknowledge that it's only Opening Day. The Yankees have 161 games still ahead of them. That's a lot of time for Tanaka to get squared away, even if he never gets his old stuff back.

For an encouraging illustration, consider Pedro Martinez in 2002. At the time, he was coming off an injury-marred 2001 season, and it was clear as he was giving up eight runs in three innings on Opening Day that he didn't have his usual array of power stuff. But though that remained the case for the rest of the year, Martinez still finished with a 1.97 ERA in his final 29 starts.

That's proof that a power pitcher can learn to live without lesser stuff. Maybe Tanaka can too.

He'll have to stay healthy, though, and his splitter- and slider-heavy approach may make that more difficult. Even if he does stay healthy, the nibbling approach he showed off against Toronto won't get it done.

In the event that Tanaka can't pull a Martinez—which wouldn't be surprising, given that he's not Pedro Martinez—the Yankees are going to be in trouble.

Regardless of whether you ask Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs, the Yankees entered 2015 as a team projected to only finish around .500. And that was with a common assumption that Tanaka would once again be the team's best pitcher.

Such projections aren't exactly gospel, mind you. But in this case, they do reflect just how volatile the Yankees' roster is and how much the team really needs Tanaka to live up to his ace billing this year.

Based on our first look, that could be difficult for him. And if it is, the Yankees will be in trouble.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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