If Masahiro Tanaka can pitch as effectively as he did last season, and only miss three or four starts unlike last season, the Yankees’ chances at getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 will be greatly increased. During the 2014 season, Tanaka missed 2.5 months between the beginning of July and the end of September as a result of a partially-torn UCL in his right elbow.
However, when Tanaka was healthy, he was one of the best starters in baseball, especially before he went on the disabled list. He made 20 starts in his rookie season after coming over from Japan, and he had an outstanding 2.77 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 13 wins, 141 strikeouts and only 21 walks in his 136.1 innings pitched. He allowed two runs or less in 13 of his 20 starts, which proves how much he is able to keep hitters off balance and throw the right pitches at the right time.
Tanaka relied primarily on his splitter (87mph), slider (84mph), four-seam fastball (93mph), while also mixing in a sinker (91mph), cutter (89mph) and curve (74mph). His six-pitch arsenal helped him record seven or more strikeouts in 12 of his 20 starts last season. If he can throw his splitter, slider and fastball with the movement and accuracy that he did last season, to start the 2015 campaign, he could be an All-Star this season.
In Tanaka’s final start of last season (his second after coming off of the disabled list) he allowed five earned runs on seven hits in only 1.2 innings. So far during spring training he is proving that that start could have just been one day when he did not have his stuff.
Last week, on Feb. 19, he threw his first bullpen session and had no discomfort. He threw 21 fastballs during a session that lasted about seven minutes. On Thursday, during his third and most intense bullpen session, Tanaka threw 40 pitches at George M. Steinbrenner field with increased velocity. He said that the location of his pitches during this bullpen session was better than the previous one, which is a positive sign.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is confident with his progression so far. Tanaka is not thinking about his elbow, and has no pain, which will hopefully mean that the injury will not reoccur this season.
“I will check with him Friday,” Rothschild said. “Based on what I saw today, I don’t see anything getting in the way of our schedule. Everything is progressing the way we like it, so we keep going.” The next step will be for Tanaka to throw batting practice.
This most recent bullpen session was more important than his first one, and Tanaka’s first spring training game will be more significant than yesterday’s bullpen session. However, each day that Tanaka makes it through pain free while throwing his pitches the way he wants to is a sign that he could dominate like he did during the 2014 season.