Latest Casualty of M.L.B.’s Changing Ball: Masahiro Tanaka’s Splitter


It was the split-finger fastball that helped Masahiro Tanaka become a star in his native Japan and then jump to the United States and a $155 million contract with the Yankees in 2014.

At its best, the pitch darts sharply inward and down against right-handed batters. Its drastic late movement has left batters whiffing a third of the time they have swung at it — managing a measly .195 batting average against Tanaka’s splitter from 2014 through last season.

But like many puzzled pitchers around the majors these days, Tanaka has not been able to get his trademark pitch to behave quite the way it used to. He has clearly struggled this season — he was on pace for a career-high walk rate and earned run average (4.78) entering his start against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday.

Tanaka did well early against the Orioles and took a 6-1 lead into the sixth inning, when he allowed four more runs and departed with one out. The Yankees ended up with a 9-6 win even though Tanaka allowed 10 hits, walked two batters and pushed his E.R.A. to 4.93.

Analyzing his difficulties on the mound, Tanaka has identified a possible culprit, as have many other pitchers: the baseball itself.

“You grip the ball, and it feels a little bit different,” Tanaka said recently through the interpreter Shingo Horie. “And then when you’re throwing with that difference in hand, obviously the movement of the ball becomes a little bit different, too.”

To compensate for that unfamiliar feeling, Tanaka, 30, has begun tinkering with his grip, hoping to restore his mastery of the splitter.

It’s no secret in this era of record home-run rates that many players believe the ball has changed. The Minnesota Twins are on pace to smash the season home run record of 267, which was set by the Yankees last year. And this year’s major league hitters could exceed the record 6,105 long balls hit last season by more than 600 homers.

But change is hard. For two months, the Yankees pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, has talked with Tanaka about altering the grip on his splitter.

“We’ve just got to get comfortable with it,” Rothschild said.

Tanaka said he had tried tweaks, but they have been minor. In his previous start, against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, he used a drastically new grip for the first time, setting his index and middle fingers across the seams instead of along them.

Zack Britton, the Yankees relief pitcher who uses a seam to throw a mid-90s sinking fastball, said he had heard from other pitchers who have struggled to adjust to the balls and tweaked their grips as a result.

“Over the years, I’ve felt like I’d had to do something a little different to make the ball move as much as maybe it did like four years ago,” Britton said. “There’s been some pitches I throw and I rip one off, and I’ll go look at the data and then look at that pitch three years ago and be like, the numbers are close, but there’s a different feeling with it, to an extent, with the baseballs.”

The normally measured Tanaka offered a pointed response when asked about his feelings on the current ball.

“If you changed the ball, then just say you changed it,” he said. “That would make everybody feel better, in a sense.”

Then his focus turned inward. “The frustration for me is that I’m not being able to adjust well enough to the ball,” he said. “So it’s toward me right now, and it started at the beginning of the season. You want the ball to do a certain thing, but you’re not able to really make good enough adjustments to do that.”

Mike Tauchman hit two homers to raise his season (and M.L.B. career) total to nine, and Mike Ford, called up over the weekend, hit the go-ahead homer in the eighth inning. It was his second in the majors.



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