With the Astros coming to Yankee Stadium for a wild-card rematch on Opening Day, what would be more fitting than another showdown between Dallas Keuchel and Masahiro Tanaka to kick things off in the Bronx?
The signs are pointing to it happening again. Tanaka said Monday he feels better now than when he first arrived in the States; the revival probably relates to his average of only 22 starts and 145 innings his first two seasons in the majors. The fact that he began his Yankees career with a bone spur in his right elbow — the one that was removed last October — may have been a problem he didn’t even realize until he noticed the difference now that it’s gone.
“Conditioning-wise, total body-wise, as far as strength, this might be the best I’ve been compared to the two previous years,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “I’ve prepared myself well heading into the season.”
As for the partial UCL tear suffered during his rookie season, that’s retreated to the back of his mind, even if the Yankees haven’t forgotten about it. Brian Cashman said Monday that Tanaka’s post-op MRI indicated that the condition of the UCL had “definitely improved” since he first suffered the injury, so that was encouraging news.
Not enough, however, to think of Tanaka, 27, as any less of an injury risk for the 2016 season. By choosing to put off Tommy John surgery, and given the mileage on his right elbow, Tanaka remains a perpetual question mark no matter how capable he looks during his bullpen sessions or how effective he is in his Grapefruit League starts.
Given that the ligament has stayed intact for this long, and the most recent tests sounded optimistic, we asked Cashman on Monday if he is ready to nudge the needle out of the danger zone for Tanaka. Maybe from red to yellow. What he did in response was toss an imaginary quarter in the air, slapping it down on the back of his hand.
“It’s a coin flip,” Cashman said. “He could never have a problem or he could have a problem today. It’s just a guessing game. None of the greatest orthopedics can tell you anything on that.”
It’s a frustrating spot for the person in charge of assembling the ’16 Yankees. Will the $155-million ace provide 30-plus starts and 200 innings? Tanaka hasn’t done it yet. But when he is healthy enough to pitch, he is remarkably consistent, a trait that no one else in the rotation seems to possess.
Despite his string of elbow, forearm and wrist problems, Tanaka’s average fastball velocity stayed in the range of 91 to 92 mph during both seasons, according to PITCHf/x, and he threw his signature splitter between 24 and 27 percent of the time. Tanaka had a WHIP of 1.06 and 0.99 in his first two seasons.
Where Tanaka thrives, in every area of his game, is making adjustments, which he’s been forced to do since he first jumped from the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Not only from a cultural standpoint, but learning to pitch more frequently in a five-man rotation rather than six, and then coping with his elbow and forearm issues.
“Competitors like him handle opposing teams and injuries the same way — they find a strategy and attack it,” Cashman said. “He’s been that every step of the way, in whatever has come up.”
The Yankees pledged to take it slow with Tanaka in his return from the elbow clean-up, but he was up to 61 pitches in Saturday’s bullpen session. Joe Girardi said he’d like his rotation members to get six starts in during spring training, but Tanaka needed only four last March to get the Opening Day assignment. And pitching coach Larry Rothschild believes Tanaka should be ready to repeat this year. “As long as there’s no major setbacks,” he said.
The Yankees won’t push Tanaka for that particular date, obviously. But in talking to him, you get the sense Tanaka wants to be out there. For the honor, if not revenge.
“I look at it as a special game,” he said. “There’s only 30 pitchers in the league that get to pitch on that very first day of the season.”
For Tanaka, the concern usually is getting through all the days after that.