Masahiro Tanaka's ongoing splitter problems heighten the Yankees' need for rotation help

NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka owes his teammates a thank you. After Tanaka put the New York Yankees in an early 4-1 hole Tuesday afternoon, his offense scored eight runs in a three-inning span against Zack Wheeler and the Mets to take him off the hook. To Tanaka's credit, he settled down and pitched into the seventh inning, and the Yankees won the game (NYY 12, NYM 5).

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Masahiro Tanaka NYY • SP • 19
June 11 vs. Mets
IP6 2/3
H7
R5
ER4
BB0
K7
HR1

For Tanaka, Tuesday was the third time in his last three starts he allowed four runs in one inning, including at least one home run. Here is the breakdown:

"Giving up four runs in one inning three games in a row, you really don't want to do that. That's kind of the bad part about the outing today," Tanaka said through an interpreter following Tuesday's game.

"I think my stuff was actually a little bit better compared to the last couple starts," Tanaka continued. "I felt pretty good out there."

McNeil's home run came on a flat 88 mph splitter that ran across the plate and into McNeil's wheelhouse. When right, Tanaka's splitter dives down and out of the zone. This year it's been running side-to-side more often than not. Here's the video of McNeil's homer. This pitch definitely goes side-to-side rather than down.

"I wanted to take (the pitch) back when it came out of my hand. I knew it was going to be gone," Tanaka said.

McNeil's home run is already the sixth homer Tanaka has allowed on his trademark splitter this year. He allowed five homers on the splitter last season, and a career-high eight the year before that. Tanaka could allow more homers on the splitter before the All-Star break this year than in any other full season in his career.

As the home run numbers suggest, the splitter has been an ongoing problem for Tanaka in 2019. He first told reporters, including Zach Braziller of the New York Post, the pitch was giving him problems back on April 14. From Braziller:

"It wasn't coming out of my hand right," Tanaka said after he was tagged for five runs on seven hits in four-plus innings in a 5-2 loss to the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. "It's not just today, it's been like that for a little bit. I think it comes down to mechanics. I definitely need to make some adjustments, so it's an effective pitch." 

Although Tanaka and manager Aaron Boone both said the splitter was better Tuesday than in previous starts -- "I thought his split was better again. I thought it was better in Toronto, frankly. I know he gave up the homer on the split to McNeil, but I thought we saw a number of good splits," Boone said -- the overall season numbers on the splitter going into Tuesday's start are ugly:


Batting AverageSlugging PercentageSwing & Miss RateExit Velocity

2017

.225

.395

38.3%

87.8 mph

2018

.210

.318

36.2%

87.5 mph

2019

.326

.565

16.9%

90.6 mph

MLB average for splitters

.204

.326

34.0%

86.3 mph

Even with those splitter issues, Tanaka is sitting on a 3.58 ERA through 14 starts and 83 innings, which is pretty darn good for a guy missing his best pitch. Tanaka has always been more pitcher than thrower, to use a cliche, and his smarts (and slider) have helped him navigate lineups without the splitter.

"The fastball/slider combination has been there for him all season long, where he's been able to -- even in that last inning -- he was able to step on some fastballs. He elevated some fastballs, I thought he did a good job of that," Boone said. "The slider continues to be a really good weapon for him to both righties and lefties."

We are now in June though, and the longer Tanaka's splitter is missing in action, the less likely it is it comes back. And as effective as he's been to date, I don't know how long the Yankees could expect it to last without the split. Imagine taking away Clayton Kershaw's curveball, or Chris Sale's slider, or Hyun-Jin Ryu's changeup. Take away a guy's best pitch and he's no longer the same guy.

The Yankees missed out on Dallas Keuchel (who signed with the Braves last week) and they're still without Luis Severino, who has yet to pitch this season while battling shoulder and lat trouble. Also, Domingo German is on the injured list with a hip issue, and knee trouble sent James Paxton and CC Sabathia to the injured list last month. Tanaka is healthy, he's just missing his best pitch. He's healthy but compromised.

At some point in the seven weeks between now and the trade deadline the Yankees will trade for a starting pitcher. Maybe it'll be Madison Bumgarner or Marcus Stroman, or someone else entirely. The Yankees are all but certain to add a starter though. With Tanaka still missing his splitter, the team's need for another starter only increases, because it's unclear how long he can remain effective without his go-to pitch.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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