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 (GameTracker), 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 did settle down and pitch into the seventh inning.

For Tanaka, Tuesday was the third time in three starts he allowed four runs in an inning, including at least one home run. The list:

The home run Tuesday 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.

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 all 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.” 

Tanaka has been unable to make those adjustments, as McNeil’s homer shows, and the overall season numbers on his splitter going into Tuesday’s start are ugly:

Batting Average Slugging Percentage Swing & Miss Rate Exit 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

Tanaka finished Tuesday’s outing having allowed five runs in 6 2/3 innings. Even with those splitter issues, he 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 split.

We are now in June though, and the longer Tanaka’s splitter is MIA, 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 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 compromised to some degree.

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.

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