Fire & Ice: Mike Yastrzemski & Masahiro Tanaka
Typically I like to save my pitching analysis for the Friday Starting Pitcher Barometer. This week, I couldn’t help myself. We’ll be looking into the struggles of veteran Masahiro Tanaka in the Ice portion of this weeks write-up. Meanwhile, our Fire portion looks at the grandson of a former veteran, Carl Yastrzemski. Mike can’t be considered a veteran, himself. Despite being nearly 29 years old, he is actually a rookie.
Fire – Mike Yastrzemski
A career minor leaguer with the Orioles, Mike Yastrzemski is finally getting his shot with the Giants. His minor league numbers were terrific before his call-up. Then again, every hitter is crushing in the Pacific Coast League this year with the juicy new MLB baseballs. In any case, Yastrzemski (please do not pay close attention to the spelling of his name as I am sure to mess it up at some point) had 12 homers in just 40 games with a .414 OBP. That will get the attention of a front office right smartly.
Over his first 71 games with the Giants, Yastrzemski has 16 home runs with a .328 OBP. After nearly being demoted after the All-Star break, Mike has completely turned things around. He’s been particularly impressive over his 34 games in the second half, including a three-homer game against the Diamondbacks.
Both the power and batting average have seen huge spikes. Seemingly everyone the Giants bring aboard recently has some magic dust blown upon them and they become overnight superstars. Rather than calling Yastrzemski’s success magic, we should probably try to find out what has been fueling his success.
One of the most favorable factors is Mike Yastrzemski’s ability to hit same-sided pitching. It’s a limited sample, of course, but over 53 plate appearances, he has hit for a .988 OPS with a decent 34.2% hard contact rate. That will help him avoid getting platooned, which hamstrings a players value.
As we look at some adjustments over the second half, we can see his pop-up rate has dropped from an unsightly 18.8% to just 4.3%. He hasn’t had any BABIP issues, but avoiding pop-ups is a great way for Yastrzemski to continue to hit for average. He has increased his fly-ball rate by 7.5% to 46.5%. That’s a lot of fly balls for anyone, and it can frankly be dangerous in spacious Oracle Park. Unsurprisingly, a lot more of his damage has come on the road (.917 OPS) than at home (.820 OPS). He has been aided by a surge in hard contact, up nearly 10% to 46.5%. He hasn’t been pulling the ball to get to his power, instead opting to spray the ball to all fields. That is more encouraging for future average than power.
The second half we are seeing from Mike Yastrzemski is impressive to be sure. However, his batted ball profile doesn’t support a 23.9% HR/FB rate. While he’s controlling the strike zone better and spraying line drives to all fields, he will be more of an asset in batting average than home runs and RBI. Ride him while he’s hot, but don’t expect All-Star-caliber production to continue.
Ice – Masahiro Tanaka
There is no way around it – Masahiro Tanaka has simply been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball over the second half. He has posted an atrocious 6.46 ERA over 39 innings with a K/9 of just 6.00. His FIP is 5.24 as well, so it’s not just some horrendous batted ball luck. What has become of the player who just last year had a strong 3.75 ERA with a 9.17 K/9?
Tanaka’s strikeouts are down, but his command is still on point. His 2.13 BB/9 is 15th best in baseball among qualified starters. While that helps the WHIP, the fact that his strikeouts have dipped so much negates that walk rate. His swinging-strike rate has fallen to 10.3%, the worst mark of his career. The splitter is the culprit.
Tanaka has always had a great slider and splitter to butter his bread. While his slider has continued to be effective, his splitter has lost a lot of its luster in 2019. It had never previously had a whiff rate below 17.6% but this year clocks in at just 11%. Fewer whiffs will obviously mean more contact, so it’s no surprise that his splitter has the highest BAA of his career at .287.
The .322 wOBA allowed on the splitter is in lockstep with his .325 xwOBA, meaning these poor results are deserved. Does this mean his time as a fantasy SP2/3 is over? Perhaps not. Tanaka recently altered his grip on the pitch and has had two straight strong performances. Unfortunately, although the overall results have been great, the splitter has earned just three whiffs on 55 thrown.
Looking ahead to 2020, Masahiro Tanaka will still be just 31 years old. It’s a bit early to start hammering nails into his fantasy-relevance coffin, but you can’t feel good about drafting him to be more than an SP4. If he can revive the splitter, he can be a profitable player. The risk, of course, is his current 2019 numbers.
Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has had his work featured in numerous books and magazines. He has also appeared on many podcasts and radio shows and hosts the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts. His written work can be found exclusively at Fantrax HQ, and his personal thoughts and opinions can be found on Twitter @NathanDokken.
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