Masahiro Tanaka
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic

In a completely restocked pitching staff, New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka could emerge as an underrated AL Cy Young contender.

Masahiro Tanaka could be on the verge of something big.

The 30-year-old righty, following problems with the home run in 2017, re-emerged as a reliable starter last year to fans’ delight. Now, as he enters his sixth season with the New York Yankees, another big step could be coming.

Per Erik Boland of Newsday, Tanaka spent the offseason developing a knuckle curveball. If he masters the pitch, his already deep repertoire could become all the more deadly.

More importantly, with a stacked lineup supporting him and the pressure off thanks to a restocked rotation, Tanaka could be in position for a truly dominant year.

So long as certain chips fall where they should, that could give Tanaka some hardware besides a World Series ring.

That hardware, ladies and gentlemen, is the AL Cy Young Award. Given Tanaka’s pitching pedigree, that could easily become a reality.

A man on a mission

Putting his new pitch aside, it’s important to understand where Masahiro Tanaka is currently at two weeks out from Opening Day. He missed a month of action last year with a hamstring injury, but still posted a 3.75 ERA in 27 starts.

Speaking of injuries, they have been a big part of Tanaka’s career. He has been regularly put under the microscope since being diagnosed with a partial right UCL tear his rookie year, in 2014. That season, despite the tear, he posted a 2.99 ERA and opted for rehab instead of losing a year to Tommy John surgery.

At first, it seemed to work. Tanaka went from throwing 40.6 percent fastballs in 2014 to just 32.5 percent the following year, and Fangraphs shows that number still dropping. Over the next two years, he posted a 3.26 ERA despite various aches and pains. He was the staff ace as Luis Severino developed.

However, trouble began in 2017 when, all of a sudden, Tanaka struggled. After giving up just 22 home runs the year before, he gave up that many by the All-Star Break. George A. King III of The New York Post described Tanaka’s slider and breaking pitches as “flat,” thus the struggles. Hitters were just taking advantage of pitches being left up in the zone.

Tanaka would post a 3.77 ERA in the second half, but the damage was done. He finished the year with a career-worst 4.74 ERA, and his home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB) jumped to 21.2 percent from 12 percent.

Thankfully, the Masahiro Tanaka of old returned last year, but the circumstances have changed. Now, he is in a position to return to top-ace form.

The new pitch

Now, let’s shift the conversation back to Tanaka’s new knuckle curve. Combined with his other pitches, it sounds like he’s looking to up his whiffed swing rate (Whf/Sw). Baseball Prospectus lists his at 24th in baseball last year, at 29.64 percent. For added context, Tampa Bay Rays lefty and reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell‘s was at 34.88 percent.

Now, consider Tanaka adding a knuckle curve. He already has a nasty splitter which gives opposing hitters fits, and his two-seamer and slider aren’t terrible either. All of these pitches, especially the knuckle curve, are thrown with one goal: make hitters chase them out of the strike zone.

That brings the conversation to Tanaka’s O-Swing%. This stat measures what percentage of a pitcher’s pitches which were out of the strike zone were swung at by hitters. Tanaka’s mark last year was 37.6 percent and though he didn’t throw enough innings to qualify, he ranked third in MLB. Only Patrick Corbin and NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom were ahead of him among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

This puts Tanaka in excellent company. Even being in the same sentence as deGrom is an honor, so count on him to build on that.

What it all means

And why does Masahiro Tanaka learning a new pitch matter? Because it means he’s going to become a better pitcher, and the timing is perfect. Severino, the new ace, injured his shoulder last week and will miss Opening Day. Tanaka, meanwhile, will start in his place.

Just imagine. The Yankees take the field on March 27 versus the Baltimore Orioles, against whom Tanaka holds a 3.72 career ERA. Manager Brandon Hyde has scouted Tanaka and, though aware of the knuckle curve, isn’t overly concerned. After all, Tanaka is only just learning it, so how dangerous can it be?

Well, the answer is more dangerous than a right hook from Ivan Drago. Opposing teams have a hard enough time keeping up with Tanaka’s nasty stuff, and now they need to learn how to hit a completely new pitch from him? Imagine if Baltimore is caught completely off guard by the knuckle curve. It would be like Batman preparing to battle The Penguin, only to learn he’s fighting The Joker last minute and is woefully unprepared.

Enter the Cy Young

Even if Severino misses minimal time and returns as the ace of the Yankees’ staff, Masahiro Tanaka will still emerge as a Cy Young contender. He cut his HR/FB down to 17.7 percent last year and should drop it further in 2019, so long as his breaking pitches are biting.

And if that knuckle curve is everything it has been in Spring Training, buckle up. Tanaka will induce more soft contact and thus give up fewer home runs. His Whf/Sw will rise along with his O-Swing%. He could set a new career high in strikeouts and K/9.

Now, combine all of those factors with a New York lineup which broke the record for team home runs last year. That spells run support, which could propel Tanaka into 20-win territory and thus the AL Cy Young conversation.

And this wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for Tanaka. He finished seventh in Cy Young voting when he won 14 games with a 3.07 ERA in 2016. He has ace material.

Throwing a knuckle curve will thus only make Masahiro Tanaka a better pitcher. In contending for the Cy Young, he could become a great one.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.