Masahiro Tanaka’s ERA before his teammates blithely dismissed an opponent calling him an idiot: 2.19. His ERA after: 5.14. Coincidence? Of course! Even the most ardent fan of the Boston vs. New York rivalry wouldn’t draw any connection between the two, and certainly no such attempt will be made here.
What may not be a coincidence, however, is that Tanaka has struggled in both of his July starts, posting the first two non-quality starts of his MLB career. He went 1-1 in those starts; his offense was able to bail him out once but not on Tuesday night.
In Tanaka’s other two losses, it’s safe to say the offense handed him those by not scoring enough runs. He was more or less a tough luck loser. On Tuesday however, he gave up 5 ERs and was pulled after 6.2 IP. Even though the Yankees offense was virtually useless after the 3rd inning, Tanaka was twice spotted a two run lead and couldn’t hold it.
He gave up a 2 run HR to former Yankee Nick Swisher, currently batting .198 on the season, and a solo shot to All-Star Michael Brantley. The blasts matched his career high in HRs allowed in a game. Overall he allowed 10 hits, the most in his MLB career.
This was easily Tanaka’s worst start of the season and the potential causes are many. It was his first start going back-to-back on five days rest, although, according to a Daniel Barbarisi tweet, Tanaka dismissed this explanation saying his fastball was better than in previous starts, implying that fatigue was not an issue.
Perhaps these are the adjustments that Tanaka was expected to struggle with earlier in the year and that are just catching up to him now, i.e. throwing in the heat of the summer, enduring a heavier travel schedule and dealing with more powerful A.L. lineups. Tanaka might just be hitting a mid-season bump in the road.
The scariest reason is that maybe the league is just catching up to Tanaka. As Bernadette Pasley, this blog's editor, pointed out, there is plenty of information now available on Tanaka that wasn’t there in the beginning of the season and he’s not surprising as many teams and players as he was then.
If this is true, and if Tanaka can’t readjust, the Yankees may be in for a rougher 2nd half than even the least optimistic fans could have suspected. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that Tanaka’s first half wasn’t just luck. He has shown an ability to set up hitters and put them away. He can get his fastball to the mid-90s and his splitter is still the best in the league.
He has the skills. Now he just has to find a way to reapply them. Given his early track record, two rough starts aren’t enough to think that won’t happen.
Update: A DL stint is never a good thing, but let's hope Tanaka is suffering only from elbow inflammation. If it's something worse, the Yankees might as well call it a season.--BP