Back in March, during Masahiro Tanaka’s dominant Grapefruit League performances, the only discussion we figured to be having in September regarding the Yankees’ presumptive ace was the countdown to his opt-out clause.
The 2017 Yankees weren’t supposed to be a playoff team, and Tanaka, perhaps with another $100-million deal on the horizon, had plenty of motivation to pitch like a Cy Young candidate. As long as he stayed healthy, exercising the opt-out seemed inevitable, even if the Yankees might be wary of re-signing him in such a scenario.
But in the last six months, that script has flipped, with the Yankees closing fast on their first postseason berth since 2015 and Tanaka relinquishing the No. 1 spot, replaced by Luis Severino. The conversation now involves where Tanaka fits into a playoff rotation, and after the Blue Jays knocked him around in Friday night’s 8-1 loss, there might be a reason to worry about him in October.
Granted, Tanaka is an experienced, intelligent, skilled pitcher who should be the No. 2 behind Severino. But Tanaka has shown an alarming propensity for giving up home runs, and that is a dangerous thing to flirt with come playoff time.
Tanaka already had established his single-season record for homers (32) before Friday night and the Blue Jays tacked on three more, including a grand slam by No. 9 hitter Ryan Goins that ended his night with two outs in the sixth. That was particularly shocking because Goins had been 0-for-22 against Tanaka, including the night’s two previous at-bats, with nine strikeouts. But after Tanaka went up 0-and-2 with a slider-splitter combo, he threw another slider that had zero movement, just spinning on a tee, and Goins blasted it over the rightfield wall to put the Yankees to bed.
“I had all the confidence in the world going with the slider there,” Tanaka said through his translator. “It just didn’t come out of my hand right. It hung.”
Mistakes happen. But when they pop up with no warning and frequently turn into game-changing home runs, that creates a lot of anxiety for everyone involved.
Rogers Centre had been Tanaka’s happy place: He was 2-1 with a 2.32 ERA in five starts there. He also was historically good against the Blue Jays (8-3, 2.62 ERA) and better at night this season (10-5, 3.60). All those factors were in his favor.
But with the Yankees needing a win to stay on Boston’s heels, or possibly even clinch a playoff berth Friday night, Tanaka picked a bad night to serve up long balls again. Of the six hits he allowed in 5 2⁄3 innings, three cleared the fence.
In addition to the helicopter slider Tanaka threw to Goins, he delivered a dull 1-and-2 splitter in the third to rookie Teoscar Hernandez, who hammered it into the second deck, and another hovering slider that Russell Martin bashed for a two-run homer in the fourth.
Those are signature pitches for Tanaka, weapons he needs to be effective. Instead, they have betrayed him too often this season, and assuming the Yankees advance past the wild-card game, Tanaka could be as reliable as a coin flip on the night he gets the ball in a Division Series, judging by what we’ve seen from him to this point.
“It’s just the inconsistency with his off-speed pitches,” Joe Girardi said. “That’s the human element. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. Just for whatever reason, he’s been inconsistent this year.”
Spread out over the past six months of the regular season is one thing. But we’re at a place in the baseball calendar where the margin for error is becoming microscopic, and you have to wonder if Tanaka is trending the wrong way. He’s allowed seven earned runs in two of his last three starts, and that won’t fly in the playoffs.
The Yankees would feel better if he sharpens up those pitches in time for October. Otherwise, it could be a fatal flaw that leads to a rapid exit.