Analysis

Dr. Tanaka or: How I learned not to overreact to bad opening day starts

It’s taken me a couple days but I finally feel like I’ve had enough time to mentally process the Yankees’s season opener against the Rays. At times, the team looked like they had never seen a baseball field before Sunday. At other times, they looked fine. Overall, there were a lot of mistakes and a lot of missed opportunities both on the field and at the plate. I mean, our lord and savior Gary Sanchez went 0-5 with a strikeout. What’s all that about?

Well, good players have bad games. When most of your team’s good players have bad games, the team has bad games. That’s basically what happened on Sunday. I don’t think anyone had an arguably worse game on Sunday than Masahiro Tanaka, though. The guy never even made it out of the third innings, allowing 7 ER in 2.2 IP. More Rays hitters reached base (10) than Tanaka recorded outs (8) before he got pulled. Yikes. Not a good start to the season, especially for someone who looked so dominant in spring training. And I’m not just talking about Tanaka’s spring numbers, because obviously those don’t count for anything. I’m talking about how in-command Tanaka looked on the mound in his spring starts. His control was as good as it’s ever been and he was just working through lineups like clockwork. So what happened?

I reiterate: good players have bad games. That’s all you need to know about Tanaka’s opening day start. It’s so easy to overreact to a game like this though. It’s been months since we’ve seen baseball that actually counted. We’ve been starved for games to watch obsessively and stats to overanalyze. We see a game like Sunday’s and maybe we start thinking, “I waited so long for this?! Blow it all up! Trade half the team and go into full rebuild!” …… Alright maybe not to that extreme, but it’s hard to stomach to say the least.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about it though, I got to wondering, what other pitchers have had similar opening day performances to Tanaka’s, and how did they fare the rest of the season? So, I did a quick search using Baseball Reference’s Play Index for starting pitcher’s who have completed 3 or fewer innings and given up 7 or more earned runs in their team’s first game of the season. The list was fairly short, but still somewhat intriguing. Going back to 2002, 8 pitchers have had similar opening day starts:

  1. Masahiro Tanaka (2017)
  2. Roberto Hernandez (2011)
  3. Carlos Zambrano (2010)
  4. Mark Buehrle (2008)
  5. Jose Contreras (2007)
  6. Barry Zito (2006)
  7. Javier Vazquez (2005)
  8. Pedro Martinez (2002)

Even a casual fan of the game will no doubt recognize more than a couple names on that list. The one that stands out the most is Pedro Martinez. Back on opening day for the Red Sox in 2002, Pedro allowed 8 runs (7 earned) in 3 IP, giving up 9 hits and 2 walks. By year’s end, Pedro was sporting a 2.26 ERA (2.24 FIP) with a 0.923 WHIP and a 10.8 K/9. All season he allowed 50 total earned runs, nearly 20% of them coming from his opening day start.

I reiterate: good players have bad games. Now obviously Tanaka is not Pedro Martinez, but he’s certainly not any of the other guys on this list either. Some of them went on to have good seasons. Some of them went on to have not so good seasons. The important thing to note is that there is absolutely no correlation between poor opening day performance and a good or bad season. Literally zero.

There is, however, correlation between past success and future success for starting pitchers with large sample sizes, and that’s exactly the case for Tanaka. In 3 seasons for the Yankees, he has maintained a 3.23 ERA (3.58 FIP), 1.06 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. Those are very very very good numbers for a starting pitcher in today’s game, especially one who has had to pitch in an offense-heavy division like the AL East. It’s not as though Tanaka has changed his mechanics or lost velocity on his fastball. It was just a flukey start. Nothing more. All other signs point to Tanaka having yet another great season this year.

So, stop worrying. Baseball is back. I’m more excited to see how this season plays out for the Yankees than I have been for a long time, and one bad game isn’t going to change that. Two bad games, though? I don’t know…..we’ll see.

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