Can no one pitch anymore? deGrom, Archer, and Tanaka were three aces who took losses last night, with other high-caliber arms such as Paxton, Quintana, Pomeranz, and Arrieta failing to go more than 5 or 6 innings and looking a bit shaky in the process. The fantasy breakout Ervin Santana got shelled for 7 runs over the weekend, and even the almighty Clayton Kershaw surrendered 11 hits and 4 earned runs over 4.1 IP last week. The professional baseball season is long and rewards those who are patient, and for most of the aforementioned players these shoddy outings are likely just blips on the radar. Most of them. Some of them, however, are in trouble. Specifically, the Yankees dubiously dubbed “ace” Masahiro Tanaka.
Today, I’m going to delve into what Tanaka’s problem is and hopefully give fantasy owners (including myself) a better grasp on what to expect from the Japanese standout. I’ll also be suggesting 3 starting pitchers to grab off of the waiver wire for spot starts from the under 30% ownership group. As always, I’ll end with a review of a craft beer that I think you’ll enjoy.
He’s not hurt, but he’s breaking my heart
Stats: 5-6 W-L / 66.0 IP / 6.55 ERA / 1.50 WHIP / 81 H (17HR) / 48 ER / 18 BB / 58 K / 5 QS
That’s an ugly, ugly stat line. Like Bill O’Reilly’s attitude ugly. This is from a guy who was a Cy Young contender last year, has never posted a WHIP above 1.08 or an ERA above 3.98 over a full season. His performance is far beyond being explained by flukes or laying the occasional egg that even the best pitchers do (see Kershaw on 5/28), as he’s been taken for 4 or more runs in 6 of his 12 starts, and failed to get past 5 innings in half of his starts as well.
As many of you know, I’m a Yankee fan in addition to a Tanaka owner, so I’ve seen almost all of his starts this season. He’s not hurt, as he, the Yankee organization, and the training staff have all adamantly denied any health issues or lingering problems from his elbow/ligament injury. This is supported by his velocity this season, which has been as good if not better than his career average. You’d think it’s mentality, as Tanaka himself suggested in a post-game interview with the New York Post: ““I see a lot of frustration in him,” Girardi said. Tanaka admitted as much after dropping his fifth straight start, a stretch in which he has given up 11 homers and has a 10.72 ERA. He said he was pressing Tuesday. “That may be the cause of what happened out there,” Tanaka said through an interpreter after being removed after just 62 pitches. “Obviously, this is tough mentally, but I can’t give up on myself. I’ve got to believe in myself that I’ll be able get over this bump.””
So what the hell? Where is this coming from? The official party line is that no one knows, and per the NY Post article above, the Yankees themselves are in the dark: “[Yankess GM Brian] Cashman recently said the Yankees were in “CSI: The Bronx” mode, using video, analytics, medicals, sports science, pretty much everything at their extensive disposal to unearth exact problems and workable cures. Joe Girardi offered granular details — that the Yankees have measured to see if the height of Tanaka’s arm during his delivery or extension were off. But no clear solution has emerged.”
So what’s the issue? His breaking pitches are NOT BREAKING. Tanaka has made a living off of his nasty breaking stuff, boasting a 6-pitch arsenal that heavily features an elite splitter, sinker, and slider. His wicked sinker/splitter combo have allowed him to be one of the most effective groundball pitchers in the MLB since his debut in 2014, as well as leading to whiffs and strikeouts. His fastball is more complementary to keep hitters honest, especially as his trademark sinker can top out an impressive 96 MPH (avg. sinker velocity is 91).
But right now his breaking balls aren’t breaking. They aren’t even listing slightly. He’s essentially been serving up batting practice when he tries to throw the sinker and splitter, turning what were once bread-and-butter pitches into meaty home run opportunities.
The Leg-Kick and the Arm-Dart
So one thing I noticed after watching video of the (many, many) home runs Tanaka has given up this year was his leg kick follow-through. Tanaka surrendered 3 bombs to the Red Sox last night, all three of which came on breaking balls that did not break. But in perhaps the finest performance of his career, which somehow took place this season against Boston on April 27th, Tanaka pitched a complete game shutout allowing only 3 hits and no walks over 9 innings. That night, at least, his breaking stuff was working. Here is a gif of his splitter in full effect against Boston during that 4/27 CGSO:
Notice the follow-through on the leg-kick. His back and body stay straight as an arrow all the way up until the pitch is released, and then he falls away towards the first base line as his back leg kicks up high to around his butt, and comes down slowly and carefully as his arms drop. He looks controlled, mechanical, deliberate. Nasty, nasty pitch. It gets Benintendi out front and ends up in the dirt, despite looking like a low fastball on its way in.
Now let’s take a look at the home run he gave up to Corey Dickerson a month later at Tampa Bay:
The first thing I noticed was his back leg: it looks like his toe caught the mound and gave him a much lower follow-through-kick. But you can also see how his back is a little more arched and hunched during the delivery of the pitch compared to the first GIF. He missed his spot badly, as the pitch was called for high and inside but crossed the plate on the outer third belt-high. He almost slides/walks towards the third base line, and you can see his right arm come all the way out: you can see his whole hand and forearm. Compare that to the first GIF of the strikeout of Benintendi where his hand stays partially hidden behind his thigh on the follow-through.
Here’s another breaking ball that didn’t break against Springer and was sent deep:
Now the leg-kick here looks roughly the same as the first GIF, but when you look at them closely you can see the pitch to Springer ends with a sharp, quick drop of his back leg after the kick, as opposed to the slow, deliberate finish to his back-leg-kick in the first GIF. Maybe there is a balance issue here. Second, he also appears to be holding his back straight just like in the first GIF, but again on the follow through we notice some inconsistency. His right arm darts out towards the third base line at the end of the Spring HR GIF, watch the pink arm re-appear and shoot out quickly at the end as his back foot shoots down. His whole hand/forearm reappears, showing more outward follow-through.
Now compare that to the first GIF/Beni strikeout again and on the follow-through to Beni watch the black sleeve and skin from his hand/forearm: it’s not “shooting out” quickly, and not nearly as far. You can’t even see his whole hand because he’s not pushing it out as hard/far towards the third base line. Again, something mechanical is seeming off/different here.
It’s minor stuff, very subtle. But if football is a game of inches then baseball is a game of centimeters. The repetition and rhythm of a pitcher is vital, as they do the same motion 90+ times in a game seeking the same result, having to hit a small target.
Alright….so what’s the problem?
The short answer is, I don’t know. If I did, I’d hope the Yankees would hire me as a trainer. But as I have no medical background my diagnosis means little and less. However, it’s undeniable that something is wrong. We are ruling out injury for the aforementioned reasons. Yes, Tanaka’s own admission is that he’s getting in his own head, but that’s a symptom of the problem rather than the cause: he’s a veteran ace who was struggling this season long before the doubts started creeping in, this is not just a mental breakdown. Something is slightly different in his pitches: it’s mechanical. His breaking balls are not breaking, and as we saw above there have been some variations in his follow through. No break = no good. Expect more terrible performances until the 28-year-old righty gets his splitter to split and sinker to sink.
So what do we do with him?
A question I’ve been asking all week. Hopefully Tanaka and the Yankees staff can pinpoint what’s causing his splitters to act like batting practice meatballs and make adjustments. To me it looks like a mechanical issue that’s noticeable in his follow-through, but that’s just an amateur opinion. What’s not an opinion is that until he proves he has gotten back to baseline, he’s dead in the water. Keep him rostered until the All-Star Break, but on the bench. Once he strings together two consecutive quality starts, he’s ready for action. I’ve watched Tanaka since his debut in pinstripes on 4/4/2014, and he’s been magical to watch. He’s got the best splitter I’ve ever seen (when it’s working, obviously). He’s not hurt. He’s not mentally weak. Something is off with his mechanics, and I have to believe the richest team in baseball can scour the video and help him fix it. Don’t drop him yet, and don’t be surprised if he misses his next start to work on mechanics/as punishment. But if he can’t prove he’s got it by the ASB, you’re safe to drop him.
So who CAN I start? The Fantasy Pickups: 3 Waiver-Wire Guys From Under 30% Ownership Group
Tim Adleman, SP (CIN) – 3.3% owned
Last three starts: 21 IP / 4 ER / 1.71 ERA / 0.76 WHIP / 16 K / 6 BB / 3 QS
Adleman is a fantasy streamer for a reason; he’s wildly inconsistent. But his past three starts have been fantastic, going 6, 7, and 8 innings on his way to three consecutive Quality Starts and a sterling 0.76 WHIP.
He racked up 7 K’s in his last outing, and should be good for at least 1K/IP against the free-swinging Dodgers this Sunday. Don’t look for him to be a permanent roster fixture, but he has a hot arm and is a solid streaming option for the weekend.
Josh Tomlin, SP (CLE) – 7.5% owned
Last three starts: 16.1 IP / 4 ER / 2.20 ERA / 0.80 WHIP / 8 K / 0 BB / 2 QS
The numbers won’t wow you, except for the juicy 0.80 WHIP and no walks over four straight games, and ONLY FOUR WALKS IN 10 STARTS ON THE SEASON. Now that’s control, folks!
Of course, he also gives up a shitload of hits: he’s allowed 7 or more hits in 7/10 starts this year, and of the 3 starts in which he didn’t give up 7+, he gave up 6 hits in two of them. So yeah. Maybe guys aren’t walking against him because they’re tearing the cover off the ball. His 44 K’s in 63 IP also aren’t anything to write home about, and he often gets victimized by the longball. That being said, he gets the job done against teams that struggle, with his best performances (including a complete game 1 ER performance against KC) coming against weak opponents. He figures to match up against the Chicago White Sox this week, who are 26th in the league in runs scored against righty pitching, with a dismal 2.39 BA to go along with those numbers. Look for a solid outing from him this week.
Ser Jaime of house Garcia, SP (ATL) – 29% owned
Last three starts: 21.1 IP / 3 ER / 1.27 ERA / 1.03 WHIP / 11 K / 5 BB / 3 QS
Oh, Garcia. Everyone knows his story. He’s posted a respectable 3.21 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over 11 starts this season. He’s only struck out 44 batters in 70 IP though, so if you need strikeouts look elsewhere. However, Garcia offers plenty of upside to your ratios and is a hungry innings-eater, as he’s gone into the 6th inning or longer in all but one start this season. He figures to face a New York Metropolitans team that’s 27th in baseball against lefties, so the southpaw should continue his success with another QS, W, and solid ERA/WHIP outing on Sunday.
Today I tried an awesome brew out of St. Louis from Urban Chestnut Brewing Company: Zwickel Bavarian-style lager.
This is a great all-around lager, clocking in at 5.2% ABV making it quite sessionable. It pours a hazy dark-gold with minimal head that disappears quickly, and very light-to-no-lacing on the glass.
It’s unpasteurized and thus quite hazy, but looks darned good in a glass. I don’t get much off the nose of the beer, some light malty, biscuity notes and maybe even corn. The taste is very crisp with light, subtle hoppy bitterness on the palate and some sweet, yeasty tones that go nicely with the biscuity flavors off the nose. It’s light-to-medium bodied and very refreshing, with a sharp, crisp, carbonated texture that doesn’t linger long in the aftertaste.
Not to mention the cans are absolutely bad-ass! (the opener pops the whole top off, you can kinda see it in my picture). I highly recommend this lager out of Urban Chestnut!