Ironically in a career spanning several decades where few people cared what he said about much of anything sports-related, Michael Kay’s opinion will be – if not interesting or useful – telling as to how New York Yankees’ pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s Sunday night performance is perceived by someone who’s accrued a strange credibility on the issue.
A preface: I am not comparing Kay to Walter Cronkite.
I repeat: I am not comparing Kay to Walter Cronkite.
But there’s a similar dynamic regarding Cronkite essentially saying in 1968 that the Vietnam war was, at best, at a stalemate and Kay almost the same thing I said verbatim asking why Tanaka’s changed his tactics and mechanics if the tear in his elbow isn’t significant enough to: A) negatively affect his pitching; and B) make surgery necessary without debate. You can listen to Kay’s surprisingly astute and objective assessment from ESPN radio below.
For Kay to call into question anything the Yankees do is tantamount to Cronkite tossing his old-school reporter sensibility of avoiding taking a stand on issues and calling into question the wisdom of continuing the losing Vietnam war. Perhaps the Yankees are having the same reaction that President Lyndon Johnson had when he reportedly turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” and are saying, “If we’ve lost Kay as our designated shill, we’re left with…Suzyn Waldman and Sweeny Murti?!?”
Amazingly, Yankees fans and apologists grow even more arrogant when the team is mediocre-to-bad. On social media, the Yankee-centric are responding to assertions that Tanaka should get the surgery with a condescending snideness and are desperately seeking ways to explain away his lack of effectiveness with bitter sarcasm. They may ridicule medical recommendations from laymen, but their insistence that Tommy John surgery is unnecessary is coming from the same baseline ignorance.
In spite of Sunday night’s 14-4 win over the Boston Red Sox, this Yankees team promises to be mediocre-to-bad. Tanaka pitched better in this start than he did in his opening day start against the Toronto Blue Jays, but his line – 5 innings, 4 hits, 4 runs, 3 earned runs, 3 walks, 4 strikeouts, and 1 homer allowed – was passable, not good; his stuff was similar to what it was in his first start; and he was not even close to a fraction of the dominant pitcher he was prior to last season’s diagnosis of a torn elbow ligament, less than 10 percent torn or not.
Yankees fans and media apologists might not breathe a full sigh of relief, but there’s a slight exultation that Tanaka got through a game without getting rocked again and that his arm stayed attached to his body. That’s better than the alternatives.
This, however, doesn’t alter the reality the club faces. That reality was on full display in this Brian Cashman interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN in New York. The uselessness of these interviews should be known by now. No one – especially team general managers – says anything of note. In the first two minutes, Cashman was in full backpedal regarding his statement at the time of Tanaka’s diagnosis that the Yankees had other pitchers who were diagnosed with a similar tear in their elbow and pitched through it. Covered by the pretense of not being able to disclose who they are, it’s impossible to know its veracity. It’s ambiguity shielded by faux propriety. According to Cashman, the reaction to Tanaka and paranoia regarding whether he’s healthy and if he should simply go and get the surgery now is a byproduct of the club being “transparent” about the injury. What exactly were they supposed to do when he was pitching brilliantly through the first half of 2014, stopped pitching brilliantly, was placed on the disabled list and was out? Not tell the media what the problem was?
It’s a typical dictatorial tactic to act as if a favor is being done by providing this information that they had no choice but to provide in the first place. This is not hockey or even football where teams are able to get away with saying their players have an “upper body injury” or a “lower body injury.” That daily grind of baseball and freedom that the players have in talking precludes the belligerence that would result from a player showing up in a half-body cast and anyone daring to ask why.
Cashman implies that the Tanaka statements as to changing his mechanics and pitching strategies was lost in translation. A lot seems to be getting lost in translation with the Yankees these days. The number of excuses they’re formulating as to their pending return to the dark times of 1965 to 1975 and 1982 to 1992 are embarrassing in their offensiveness. They’re not spending money; they’re in a pseudo-rebuild (for them); they’re waiting for contracts to expire; they’re talking up young players Aaron Judge, Gregory Bird, Luis Severino and others as if the next wave of homegrown talents along the lines of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams will miraculously become championship players as a matter of course; and they’re still charging ludicrous prices for a stage show that few are going to want to see because the star names they have are now more suited to being supporting players.
The reliance on pitchers like Nathan Eovaldi and trusting their development is another warning sign. He’s been dumped by two different organizations before he turned 25 in part because his numbers were terrible and in part because he has a reputation of not listening to coaches. His first start showed why teams want him (a near-100 mph fastball) and why they can’t wait to get rid of him (he gives up a ton of hits). Unless the Yankees figure out a way for him to use his brushed up split-finger to accumulate strikeouts, their shoddy defense and the amount of baserunners he allows don’t bode well while pitching in the small ballparks of the American League, especially with home games in a bandbox like Yankee Stadium. In fact, it makes him susceptible to big innings. Just because a pitcher has good stuff doesn’t means he’s good.
The word “stuff” goes directly back to Tanaka. He pitched serviceably against the Red Sox, but it wasn’t the Tanaka of 2014, but more along the lines of Daisuke Matsuzaka of 2007 and 2008 with high pitch counts, numbers that could be deemed okay on the surface, but are in fact middling and could be achieved by arms who were far less expensive and had significantly diminished expectations than a star like Tanaka who cost the team $175 million.
Cashman can accurately be referred to as Kevlar Cash for his apparent resistance to heat. He’s not held accountable for anything that’s gone wrong with this organization and that’s fine. But if his circular corporate-speak is losing its luster with those who are instinctively predisposed to buying everything the organization says as true, then they’re really in trouble in places other than on the field.
By the time you’re reading this, Kay might have already retreated into his instinctive Yankees boosterism. But if he says, accurately, that the win against the Red Sox proved little-to-nothing for Tanaka and the Yankees, it’s more worrisome for the club. There certainly won’t be an accurate assessment from Cashman, manager Joe Girardi or anyone in the media and fan base who’s invested in the team being good and Tanaka being the ace they need him to be for the team to be good. But if Kay maintains objectivity on the issue, they’ll have lost one of the main “YES” men (double entendre intended) and another layer of protection will be gone as well.