For years now Masahiro Tanaka has been the poster boy for the Yankees’ anti-fastball philosophy. Despite the ongoing narrative that he lost velocity following his 2014 elbow injury, Tanaka’s fastball velocity has held steady since then, but the fastball is still his clear third pitch. His splitter and slider are his two best weapons so he uses them. A lot.
Man can not live on offspeed pitches alone though. Tanaka’s fastball will never be a putaway pitch, but it is a pitch he needs to set up his splitter and slider. It’s something to keep hitters honest. Anecdotally, it seemed to me Tanaka threw more elevated fastballs last year, though that’s not really the case. Here are the numbers:
|% Fastballs||% Elevated Fastballs||Fastball Whiffs per Swing|
Just to be clear, this table is telling us 32.0% of Tanaka’s pitches were fastballs last season, and 5.1% of his fastballs were elevated. (“Elevated” means in the upper third of the strike zone and above.) Tanaka did throw his highest rate of elevated fastballs last season, though we’re talking one extra elevated fastball for every 100 fastballs thrown, or one every three starts or so. That’s an insignificant difference.
In the year 2019, baseball is all about missing bats and keeping the ball out of play. Elevated fastballs accomplish that. They’re a great swing-and-miss pitch. Here are the league averages on fastballs:
|% Thrown||Whiffs per Swing||Ground Ball Rate||xwOBA|
Even with high heaters becoming increasingly popular, I am genuinely surprised to see the league threw more fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone (and above) than the lower third (and below) last year. “Keep the fastball down” is one of those tried and true baseball adages, and relative to the middle third of the zone, it is absolutely true. You don’t want to be in the middle third. That’s the danger zone.
Clearly, elevated fastballs are preferable to fastballs down. They get way more swings and misses and also more favorable contact (i.e. pop-ups and weak fly balls) than fastballs down, which are a good ground ball pitch and nothing more. Keeping the ball down and getting quick outs on the ground is an outdated strategy. So many starters are only going through the lineup two times nowadays that keeping the pitch count down isn’t a priority. They’re only facing 18 hitters no matter what.
Tanaka, moreso than any other Yankees pitcher, strikes me as someone who might benefit from throwing more elevated fastballs. Luis Severino and James Paxton already pitch upstairs with their heaters. So does J.A Happ and every reliever except sinkerballer Zack Britton. CC Sabathia doesn’t have the fastball to pitch upstairs at this point in his career. He’s doing just fine crowding hitters inside. Tanaka is the team’s only candidate for more elevated fastballs, really.
Elevated fastballs are good for swings and misses and weak fly balls, and, in Tanaka’s case, they would also help him change the hitter’s eye level. He pitches down in the zone an awful lot with his splitter and slider, and also his fastball as well. Look at his 2018 pitch heat map. When Tanaka’s on the mound, hitters can sit on pitches down in the zone.
Sitting on pitches down doesn’t guarantee success — Tanaka is pretty darn good, after all — but it does make life a little easier for the hitter. Tanaka’s never going to be a power pitcher. He is the embodiment of the “pitcher not a thrower” cliche. Tanaka succeeds by tricking hitters and keeping them off-balance. More elevated fastballs could help make him even trickier and keep hitters even more off-balance.
Two things about this. One, is Tanaka comfortable elevating fastballs? He does it from time to time, and his overall control is very good, so it seems like he would be okay with it. That said, elevating fastballs is not easy. The top of the strike zone is basically at the belt these days, forget about the letters, so a relatively small sliver of strike zone qualifies as elevated. Too high and it’s an easy take for a ball. Too low and it’s in the wheelhouse. Tanaka might not want to elevate his heater more than he is now.
And two, the Yankees have almost certainly thought of this already. Their pitching staff throws so many elevated fastballs that it is safe to assume it is intentional, and I’m sure they’ve considered having Tanaka do it as well. Maybe the numbers say it’s a bad idea or simply not worth it, or maybe Tanaka said he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it. My guess is this is something that has been discussed internally at some point. I’m not going to pretend to have shed light on some great big secret here.
Tanaka is very much an outlier on a pitching stiff built around velocity. He lives and dies with his splitter and slider, and only shows the hitter a fastball to keep them from waiting back on an offspeed pitch. Maybe more elevated fastballs would help, especially in two-strike counts. If Tanaka is not comfortable with it though, pitching up in the zone with his fastball could wind up being counterproductive.