Cautious Optimism for Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka made his spring debut without incident yesterday, throwing two scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater. After an effortless first inning in which he retired the first three batters he faced on eight pitches, Tanaka struggled with his command in the second, allowing two singles and a walk. A nifty double play started by Rob Refsnyder in his first game action at third base allowed Tanaka to escape the jam unscathed before striking out David Lough to end the inning.

Tanaka was throwing 87-88 in the first inning, before being clocked at 90-91 in the second. Pitchf/x lists his average fastball as 92.0 in 2015 and 91.1 in 2014, so he’s not far off from where he should be to start the year. While some rust was evident, it was an encouraging beginning to the 2016 season for the New York Yankees’ ace, who underwent surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow back in October. Even with the offseason to recuperate, it was unclear whether Tanaka would be at full strength to begin the season. He got off to a slow start this spring, not throwing off of a mound until a brief session in mid-February. He told reporters early in camp that he wasn’t sure whether he’d be ready for Opening Day and he’d need to see how his body responded as he built up his innings. He seemingly passed today’s latest test without a hitch, leaving only slightly behind the workloads of his fellow starters.

The Yankees’ first regular season game is four weeks from tomorrow, which would leave him time for roughly four to five more tuneup starts, assuming the team continues to give him extra rest between outings. Assuming there are no physical setbacks, that should be plenty of time to get him ready for his second consecutive Opening Day start. Of course the obvious concern when it comes to Tanaka is the current injury’s proximity to the partially torn tendon in his right elbow. Like the wrist tendinitis and forearm strain that caused him to miss over a month early in the 2015 season, the bone spur is not directly related to the UCL tear. However, any issue involving his elbow at this point needs to be treated with extreme caution. It is absolutely possible that another injury in the same area could put stress on that tendon and aggravate the injury that caused Tanaka to miss the second half of the 2014 season. At this point it is all but a given that Tanaka will need Tommy John surgery at some point in the near future. The team’s goal should be to push it beyond the 2017 season, when the pitcher is likely to opt out of his current contract.

One thing to keep an eye on as Tanaka progresses this spring is if his newly cleaned out elbow leads to an impact in his 2016 performance. After establishing himself as one of the game’s most exciting pitchers in his 2014 coming out party, Tanaka seemingly took a step backwards in 2015. His ERA rose from 2.77 to 3.51, and his FIP jumped from 3.04 to 3.98. This can be partially explained by batters learning to lay off his nasty splitter, instead pouncing on his very hittable fastball. Last season, Tanaka also often seemed to struggle with locating his pitches in 2015, which was not an issue for him in his U.S. debut, leading to speculation that the elbow issue was affecting his command. Clearly Tanaka and/or the team felt the elbow needed to be addressed for some reason. There is no way to predict how the removal of the bone spur will influence his pitching in 2016, but the early results are promising.

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