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Masahiro Tanaka’s strong case to start the Wild Card game

Matt Gregory

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Masahiro Tanaka is currently making a strong case to be the Yankees American League Wild Card starter. Given his performance before the all-star break, that would seem impossible to imagine. His ERA was 4.54 with a FIP of 4.90, to go along with 18 home runs, good for a 1.94 HR/9. That is back-end rotation numbers or even enough to get someone pulled from the rotation.

But the second half has been a 180-degree turn for Tanaka on all accounts. His HR/9 has slashed to 0.77, his ERA is 2.30 with a FIP of 2.79. His K% has increased from 24.3% to 26.5% while his BB% has dropped from 6.5% to 4.4%. Tanaka has adjusted since the all-star break, but if you look at the last five years, he is usually better during the second half.

His ERA in the first half since 2014 is 3.77 wherein the second half it is 3.23, with a FIP dropping from 3.91 in the first half to 3.62 in the second half. For now, the focus is on 2018 and what has changed for Tanaka.

To help understand the decrease in ERA, it is helpful to look back at the HR/9 along with his HR/FB rate in the first and second half. This is because Tanaka does a pretty good job of limiting the walks but has consistently struggled at preventing home runs. Part of that can be attributed to being in Yankee stadium, but these numbers suggest that’s not the only issue.

For one, Tanaka ran a HR/9 rate of 1.94, with a HR/FB (home run per flyball rate) of 20.9%. League average sits around 10-11% for HR/FB. Career-wise, Tanaka has a HR/FB of 17.8% but in the second half, he has cut it down to 11.6%. Homerun prevention is partially luck, but there is one thing that pitchers can do to prevent home runs and that is reduce the number of flyballs they give up.

Tanaka has done just that, with his FB% (flyball rate) from the first half at 38.1% being reduced to 27.6%. The fewer flyballs, the fewer opportunities for them to turn into home runs. What goes hand in hand with that is his GB% (groundball rate). He has spiked it from 38.1% to 51.9%. Groundballs, next to strikeouts, are a pitcher’s best friend as they generally do not generate many runs or extra bases. That is not to say they do not go for hits, but limiting extra bases is important.

For this analysis, the only pitches that will be looked at are Tanaka’s fastball, slider, and splitter as they account for nearly 95% of the pitches he throws.

First, has his pitch mix changed at all? Slightly! In a small sample of September, Tanaka has upped his fastball usage, which is not his best pitch but has maintained the same amount of usage of his splitter and slider. See below:

The thing that should be a focus is the kind of contact Tanaka has given up. Below are two charts showing the flyballs per ball in play and groundballs per ball in play, split by pitch type:

There has been a leveling out and an overall decrease in the number of flyballs per fastball in play. Meanwhile, we have the inverse for groundballs in play with the fastball. Slider and splitter have mostly stayed steady. What could be the reason for more groundballs and fewer flyballs? Here’s a heat map of pitch location from the first half and the second half respectively:

The difference is nuanced but specifically look at the bottom part of the heat map. There’s slightly more purple in the middle of the zone during the first half, wherein the second half that purple has shifted to blue and the bottom half has become a stronger red. Tanaka is doing a better job of stay low in the zone and it’s helping slash his home runs, which were the huge problem in the first half.

Here are two gifs from August 27th and September 1st, respectively. They are from Rob Friedman on Twitter (follow him, the gifs are great @PitchingNinja) that demonstrate his change in approach.

By staying low and increasing the number of groundballs and reducing the flyballs, Tanaka reduces the number of fly balls that turn into home runs. Combine this with his ability to limit the walks and a stellar strikeout rate, and it is obvious to see that Tanaka is hitting his stride at the perfect time. He looks to continue this success on Friday night.

Stats are through 9/10/2018 and courtesy of FanGraphs, charts are courtesy of BrooksBaseball

Born and raised in New Jersey in a Yankee household, Matt works with computers by day but has always loved baseball. When he's not doing either of those things, he's probably thinking about Villanova basketball way too much. Follow him on Twitter @MattchewGregory.

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Podcast

Robinson Cano linked to the Yankees?

Stacey Gotsulias

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s episode of Locked on Yankees, Stacey discusses the Yankees and Robinson Cano, she looks at how the Yankees were shopping Justus Sheffield to a few teams before he ultimately landed with the Mariners and she takes you around the league.

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New York Yankees

Yankees year in review | The bullpen

Matt Gregory

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Brad Penner-USA Today Sports

Welcome to Yankees Year in Review. This is the fourth and final installment and to round out our year in review, we look at the bullpen.

The Yankees bullpen was arguably their crown jewel. Ask any baseball fan why the Yankees could make it to and win world series and they would immediately and emphatically point to the Yankees bullpen.

There were holdovers from the successful 2017 bullpen: Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. But relievers are somewhat unpredicatble and sustained year-to-year performance is not a guarantee. Let’s use Dellin Betances as an example.

Betances in 2017 was coming off a three-year run where he was worth at least 2.4 fWAR. So, it made sense that he was a key reliever for high-leverage situations coming into the season. Betances performed fine in the regular season, with his September and October signaling trouble. His walk rate spiked while his strikeout rate declined. He developed issues against righties, especially when it came to issuing walks. He was an unstable quantity in the playoffs, alternating between good and awful. There were concerns about 2018.

The truth was somewhere in the middle. Betances was not as bad as 2017, nor was he as dominant as that three-year run. He was more consistent, with a tight grip on the setup role and picking up saves when Aroldis Chapman went down with an injury.

Speaking of Chapman, he seemed to bounce back from a slightly disappointing 2017. Still, his walk rate continued to climb, all the way to 5.26 BB/9. His strikeouts were back up, with a 16.31 K/9, second highest of his career.

Two things, both probably related, to know about Chapman. His fastball velocity was down, maybe due to his injury during the year. His fastball pitch value was his lowest since reaching the MLB in 2010 at 5.3, almost half the value it was worth in 2017. His fastball has long been the most important pitch in his arsenal since he has never shown consistent command of his slider. He can still reach triple digits but last year seemed like the first time where 100mph was not a guarantee.

That last section in 2018 is not great. Sure, pitchers who throw 96mph still do fine, but every mph decrease gives hitters just a little bit more time, so Chapman’s margin for error is slowly shrinking. By the way, there are three more years left on his contract. There is real potential for the next few years to get ugly.

David Robertson finished his second stint with the Yankees with a strong year. His ERA of 3.23 may look elevated for a reliever and it is slightly higher than his career average, but he was still a valuable contributor. His fastball pitch value was -2.6, the 2nd lowest of his career but everything from K/9, HR/9 etc. were within career norms.

Then I found his left on base percentage. It was 67.5%, 11% lower than his career average. Meaning he was not stranding runners at nearly the same rate, which could explain the spike in his ERA. He enters the offseason as a free agent and will represent himself. I would predict the Yankees to stay in to contact and offer maybe a two-year contract but given his age (34 in 2019), it would be hard to see him getting much more in terms of guaranteed years.

Chad Green came up as a starter in the minors, but his 2018 solidified that he belongs in the bullpen. Green was the third most valuable reliever in terms of fWAR. Manager Aaron Boone regularly deployed him for more than one inning and Green was up to the challenge.

His K/9, BB/9 all stayed within his career averages. His home run per nine innings did double from 2017, but still stayed respectable at 1.07 HR/9. Given everything written above, it is hard to say Green is going to absolutely repeat this performance. But he is still young (28 in 2019) and could be in line to take over the later inning roles if Chapman or Betances falter.

Jonathan Holder was somewhat of a pleasant surprise, seeing several high leverage situations. His performance can probably be explained by his home run per nine innings getting sliced down to .55 in 2018 from 1.14 in 2017. That really is it. He does not induce groundballs, his strikeout per nine is good but not elite for a reliever.

Holder possessed a flyball rate of 50.5%, which is extremely confusing for someone who just posted an elite home run per nine innings rate. Here is a chart of all the relievers in the last three calendar years who have done what Holder just did:

Four relievers, that is it. On one hand, there is Kenley Jansen! On the other hand, that was Ryan Buchter and Brian Ellington’s best years as major leaguers. Ellington pitched seven innings last year in the minors, while Buchter pitched for the Athletics but was just okay.

The point is that this does not seem like the most sustainable profile for Holder. The best case is something like Jansen and he is an elite closer due to his ability to strike batters out, something that Holder does not do nearly as well.

This is where I would say something about Tommy Kahnle since in 2017 he was a reliable arm for later innings. But as is the pattern of this article, he had some issues that led to a step back in performance. He had shoulder tendonitis and when he returned there was a reoccurrence of some flaws from his earlier years like a higher walk rate and an increase in home runs allowed. His velocity was down as well. He will need to work back to be trusted with high leverage situations in 2019.

Zach Britton was acquired at the deadline and strengthened the back end of the bullpen despite returning from injury. He continued to post a ridiculous groundball rate but walked a lot of batters while not striking out as many. Still, he was trusted with high leverage situations down the stretch and could still be an above average reliever.

The rest of the bullpen will get more of a rapid-fire treatment: Adam Warren was effective but traded to Seattle for international bonus slot money. Luis Cessa was injured and shuttled between long man and back-end starter. A.J. Cole had a good run from May to July but reverted to being A.J. Cole with a 7.91 ERA in the second half. Chasen Shreve’s contribution would be that he was eventually packaged with Giovanny Gallegos for Luke Voit, for that Yankee fans everywhere are thankful. Lance Lynn handled some relief innings and was completely serviceable.

Robertson, Britton, and Lynn are all free agents. It is reasonable to believe the Yankees might pursue all three, given their importance to the 2018 team. Otherwise, the bullpen should be relatively set in stone and continue to be a strength going forward.

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Machado clarifies, diving into the Paxton trade and much more

Stacey Gotsulias

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Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s episode of Locked on Yankees, Manny Machado clarifies his “Johnny Hustle” comments, Stacey goes a little more in depth with regards to the James Paxton trade, she updates you on some trade rumors and we’re celebrating Ken Griffey Jr’s 49th birthday.

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