Starting pitching has been a minefield this year, but mostly because of injuries. Masahiro Tanaka has been the exception to that rule (unless he is hiding an injury). In 48 innings, Tanaka has struck out 39 batters and posted 6.56 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and 2.60 K/BB. The xFIP, which normalizes Tanaka’s HR/9 to 1.00 indicates that he’s been a bit unlucky in the home run department. He definitely has been been, for instance: Tanaka’s 2.44 HR/9 well exceeds last year’s highest mark (1.98) and his HR/FB (24.5%) is also greater than last year’s league leader (20.2%). Even in the worst (non-injury) case scenario, Tanaka is going to experience better luck on flyballs.
Another issue that Tanaka is facing is an inflated BABIP (.329) compared to a career rate (.276) and last year’s rate (.271). There is no drastic change in batted ball mix (2017: 1.51 GB/FB compared to 2016: 1.55 GB/FB). Tanaka is actually generating a higher rate of infield flies (15.1%) than his career average (11.2%) and last year’s rate (12.0%). The batted ball authority is pretty much static year-over-year and this year’s totals almost perfectly mirror Tanaka’s career averages. Further, the Yankees defensive statistics are also pretty static year-over-year.
In terms of control, Tanaka is walking a few more (2.81 BB/9 compared to 1.66 BB/9 in his career). Despite generating a higher SwStr% (12.6% compared to 10.9% in 2016), his K/9 is actually down slightly year-over-year. Overall, this looks like a pitcher that’s run into some really poor luck.
However, the per pitch data provides us with a clearer picture of what Tanaka’s issues are. Despite a velocity bump, it looks like Tanaka does not trust his fastball, which means he is likely struggling with the command aspect. Tanaka can utilize two fastballs (or three, depending on whether you consider a cutter a fastball), but in the past year and a half, Tanaka has shied from his four-seam (except for a stretch at the end of last year) with single-digit usage rates in 6 of his last 8 months, and relied on his sinker as his primary fastball. The four-seam has given up a slugging percentage of .778 (9.37% usage) and .500 (4.64% usage) in the first two months of 2017. The two-seamer or sinker has surrendered .679 (30.03% usage) and 1.200 (22.29% usage) in the first two months of this year. I wonder if shifting to the four-seamer would help as Tanaka was in the double digits in usage in August and September last year when he put together a really solid close to the season.
Regardless, the fact that Tanaka has pitched nearly a month worth of starts in May and thrown just 26.93% traditional fastballs means a couple of things to me: (1) he has lost confidence in those pitches; (2) there’s probably a mechanical issue – which could be fixed; and (3) I worry about his sustainability if he continues to throw breaking balls at that pace. For these reasons, I would place a moderate buy low tag on Tanaka.
For clarification, that means I would not trade an asset that I 100% believed in for Tanaka. In that deal, I also need to offload some risk, whether it’s performance-based or injury-based. I keep coming back to these names, but Alex Cobb, Sonny Gray, Gio Gonzalez, and Drew Pomeranz are the type of asset that I would throw out for Tanaka.
-I think I am willing to buy high on Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had two big red flags coming into the year – health and control. If his recent stretch is any indication, he might have cleaned up the control issue. In his last five starts, Rodriguez has a 33/6 K/BB ratio. If he gets knocked around, but the control sticks, I would jump right on that buying opportunity.
-With Brad Hand now looking like the closer to own in San Diego, at least until he is traded, the next closers up are Felipe Rivero in Pittsburgh, Tommy Kahnle for the Chicago White Sox (not Nate Jones, who has been injured most the of year), Archie Bradley in Arizona and Keone Kela in Texas. If you want to get ahead of the game, I would prioritize Rivero and/or Kahnle since the closers ahead of them seem like imminent trade candidates and they can both help in ratios.
-I am over the moon for Scott Schebler because the profile looks, not only sustainable, but like there’s room for improvement. Schebler presently has a .234 BABIP, the projection systems all place him between .291 and .284. His career average is .284. By my calculations, his xBABIP is actually .310, which is mostly due to his 40+% Hard% and minuscule 4% IFFB%. Statcast also has positive indicators – he is sandwiched between fellow breakout Michael Conforto and Wil Myers with average FB/LD velocity of 96.9 MPH. Of course, Schebler has the best power home park of those three. Schebler is another excellent buy high candidate.