Questions and truth about Masahiro Tanaka

MLB

Playing doctor used to mean prepubescent children taking off their clothes to see what’s what. Nowadays, in the era of social media, WebMD and Wikipedia, playing doctor means something vastly different. A brief, five minutes of time spent browsing a few websites has evolved (or devolved) into laymen and women feeling qualified in their medical knowledge to provide assessments, analysis and advice to specialists who cut people open for a living, experts who read MRIs, and sports professionals who make their living determining whether or not their charges are able to continue performing or need to repair an issue.

New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is the current target of this medical intrigue as he’s pitching with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and has been told, by actual doctors, that he can avoid surgery with the current percentage of the ligament that is torn. That hasn’t stopped the judgments of everything from what’s going on in his head, the heads of the Yankees, how he’s responding to the fact that he’s pitching hurt, and how he’s pitching.

There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground in this situation. On one end, there’s the ironclad statement that Tanaka should just get the surgery now and end the charade of pitching effectively through it. On the other, there are the Yankees’ version of climate change deniers who insist there’s nothing wrong and that Tanaka’s struggles were related more to his lack of location and command rather than an altered strategy, mechanics and compensation for the injury.

Here are the facts sans the idle chatter specifically designed to troll on the web:

  • Tanaka’s fastball is diminished – ever so slightly – from what it was when he was dominating Major League Baseball for the first half of the 2014 season
  • He has changed his mechanics to try and take pressure off the elbow
  • He has changed his pitching template with an open statement that he’s going to throw more sinkers than four-seam fastballs
  • He’s pitched in three games that count since the diagnosis and gotten blasted in two of them

Logically, if the doctors told him that he can pitch with the injury as it stands now and he wants to pitch, then he should be able to pitch as he normally pitches. Why change the mechanics? Why alter the pitches he throws? And why is he suddenly getting shelled?

Since Tanaka has made these changes, it’s telling that he’s probably pitching in pain, is hesitant about the injury, or both. While many pitchers would have conceded to reality that they’re hurt and eventually realized that their long-term career prospects are better if they’re 100 percent rather than 80 percent healthy, Tanaka is admirable in his desire to be there for his teammates and earn his contract. Japanese culture dictates that Tanaka try to live up to the terms of that $175 million the Yankees spent to get him, but the contract was given to him for the Cy Young Award-level performance the Yankees received before he got hurt. They’re not getting that now.

It’s still not entirely clear as to whether the doctors told him that he can get the surgery to replace the ligament now and know it will be repaired or if they said he can pitch with the current tear and do so effectively.

But he’s not doing so effectively. Doctors’ statements and expertise aside, because he can pitch with it as an obviously diminished entity doesn’t mean he should pitch with it.

It’s often worthless to take the word of the opposing hitters when they give an opinion on a pitcher especially if it’s a pitcher they chased after four innings, but the Toronto Blue Jays saying that they weren’t worried about catching up to Tanaka’s fastball is telling. For them to say they knew he couldn’t blow the ball past them if he needed to is an important fact when determining exactly what the Yankees can expect from Tanaka this season. With a power fastball – a four-seamer with life – the hitters can’t wait that extra millisecond to see if it’s a slider or a split-finger coming. The sinker, slider and splitter will all move along the same plane if they’re going where the pitcher wants them to go. A four-seamer will be higher in the zone, have more jump and leave the hitter with less time to adjust to it. So if Tanaka is throwing all those sinkers and shunning the four-seam fastball, that is clearly going to affect how hitters react to him. That information gets around the league immediately and the hitters will know it before they step into the box to face him.

There doesn’t seem to be much debate that he’s eventually going to need the procedure. Adam Wainwright has almost become a required addition to any sentence that contains the words “Tanaka” and “Tommy John.” What’s ignored in the equation is that at the time Wainwright’s elbow tear was diagnosed – twice – he was in high school and in Triple A. No one was counting on him as anything other than a prospect. Also, how many pitchers are able to have the tear and repeat what Wainwright miraculously did and not just pitch with it, but help his team win a World Series as a closer and then become one of the top five starters in baseball?

Wainwright’s St. Louis Cardinals were in a unique position that they were able to win the World Series in the year that Wainwright’s elbow finally gave out. The Yankees are not in that situation. If they lose Tanaka, they not only lose one of the few remaining drawing cards they have, but they can essentially punt on this season. A team so immersed in an annual championship push and a front office and fan base that has gotten so spoiled that they’re loathe to even admit that 1965 to 1975, and 1982 to 1992 happened at all makes it all-but impossible to face that reality. The Yankees’ transparent decision to shut off the radar gun to hide Tanaka’s lack of velocity certainly isn’t helping to eliminate the perception that they’re a crumbling, paranoid dictatorship clinging to the last vestiges of power. The diametrically opposed triangular truth of a pending rebuild, an injured star, and a vast percentage of a fickle fan base that’s ready to abandon ship will inevitably influence how ownership responds to the new circumstances.

Can Tanaka do what Wainwright did? The medical consensus is that he can pitch with it. The important question is how long he’s going to be able to avoid surgery and pitch effectively. The Yankees and their fans can formulate all the ludicrous and unbelievable excuses as to why he’s struggling and continually dodge the reality as best they can. The medical evidence says one thing. The practical evidence says another. Which are we to believe? Given the idea behind an athlete is performance, Tanaka’s injury is cause for concern not because everyone seems to be waiting with fear, anticipation and, in some quarters, excitement that it’s going to blow, but because he’s pitching terribly. Until that changes, the speculation will continue and that speculation might actually have a basis in fact regardless of whether it’s coming from a non-credible would-be doctor or not.

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