MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays

Mashiro Tanaka made his highly-anticipated debut tonight for the New York Yankees, starting against the Blue Jays in Toronto’s home opener. With a throng of Japanese media on hand on top of the typically large New York contingent and a sold-out crowd, it was the perfect storm.

#TANAK did not disappoint under the watchful eyes of the Yankees “universe.” His final line looks great (7IP, 6 hits, 3 runs, 8 strikeouts, 0 walks) but failed to capture how truly in control Tanaka appeared for most of the game.

The Jays poked and slapped their share of singles through the Yankees’ infield in the early going but Tanaka really settled in after the second inning and mowed down the Blue Jays for the next five frames, only failing to retire Edwin Encarnacion (one of the AL’s premier sluggers, it should be noted.)

What did we learn about Masahiro Tanaka tonight? Splitters. There will be lots and lots of splitters. As far as the eye can see, splitters on splitters on splitters.

There will be splitters because the splitter is an insane pitch for Tanaka, especially against hitters seeing him for the first time.According to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka threw 24 total splitters, 10 of which the Blue Jays swung through and four others that went for hits.

Tanaka’s splitter grip, courtesy of @Yankees

 

Good as the pitch was at coaxing swinging strikes, it was the splitter that appeared to let him down in the early going, as the pitch stayed up in the zone and the Blue Jays took advantage, poking hits through the infield in addition to Melky Cabrera’s leadoff home run.

But the splitter and its cousin, the two-seam fastball, did their work by inducing ground balls by the bushelful. 12 grounders on 19 balls in play, unofficially.

On the fast Rogers Centre turf, Joe Girardi sent out his best defensive midfield with this in mind. Don’t expect to see Derek Jeter lineup behind Tanaka too many times during his victory lap.

Mashairo Tanaka will be a fascinating pitcher to watch as he progresses through the league. The first two times he navigated the Blue Jays lineup, he started hitters with his big, slow curve.

He handled the Blue Jays two best hitters, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, very differently. He started Jose Bautista with his slow curve in his first two trips to the plate until finally starting him with the slider in his third at bat. Bautista ended the night with two strikeouts and a foul pop, though a few missed pitches will keep the Jays’ slugger up tonight.

After starting Bautista with a curve, Tanaka went with a first pitch slider to Encarnacion in their first encounter and a fastball the next trip. The Yankees starter fell behind and eventually surrendered a long double to EE off the left field fence. In the fifth, Encarnacion saw the slow curve to start the plate appearance, later singling for his second hit of the night.

Colby Rasmus was the only Blue Jay I noticed to swing at the get-me-over curve, getting under the 74 mph offering and hit a lazy fly ball to right field.

His fastball velocity came as advertised, getting up as high as 94, but Tanaka appeared quite comfortable in “adding and subtracting” as well as mixing in all three of his fastballs (four seam, two seam, and cut). Later in the game, facing the light-hitting bottom of the Jays’ order, Tanaka went almost exclusively with fastballs, challenging hitters less likely to hurt him.

Much was made of Tanaka’s slider, and how it might better translate in the Major Leagues given differences in balls used in MLB compared to Japan.

In the early going, what I can only assume is a slider was not a good offering from NPB import. Though he got a swing and miss from Colby Rasmus with one early in the game, it was more as a change of pace that didn’t appear to break a great deal.

The slider wasn’t really working, but he appeared to continue using it as the game progressed (either that or his cutter, neither pitch was particularly effective). Yet he continued throwing it, spinning up 18 according to Brooks Baseball, with just the one whiff (to Rasmus.)

Tanaka’s pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, mentioned his tenacity post-game. He kept trying to make the slider work even though he could see it wasn’t.

angry tanak

The above screen-cap shows Tanaka reacting after throwing a slider most big leaguers would describe as a “cement mixer.” Jose Bautista fouled it off but Tanaka was still upset, turning his back to the plate and cursing loudly to himself. Maybe it’s nothing, but if I’m the Yankees (or a Yankees’ fan), that’s something I like to see.

Results wise, the Yankees could not hope for a better start to Masahiro Tanaka’s career. More than just the stellar numbers (7 IP, 8 strikeouts, 0 walks) was the way he went about his business on the hill.

The league will get to work studying Tanaka, looking for the first pitch curve and attempting to lay off his filthy splitter. What I saw was a pitcher up to the challenge, a guy with a kitchen sink arsenal and a willingness to mix things up as he turns over a batting order.

What did we learn? The rest of the American League is in for a rough time whenever Masahiro Tanaka toes the rubber. As good as he was tonight, plenty of room for improvement remains.