When healthy, there’s no doubt that Masahiro Tanaka is one of the most electrifying pitchers in all of baseball. The Japanese sensation signed a $155 million dollar contract with the New York Yankees this past offseason and immediately took the league by storm.
Through his first 17 big-league starts, Tanaka compiled a 12-3 record to go with a 2.27 ERA (2.90 FIP, 2.50 xFIP), a 0.97 WHIP and an incredible 130:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 122.2 innings.
Then Tuesday, July 8 happened.
Tanaka took the mound in Cleveland that day and had his worst performance of the season (6.2 innings, 11 hits + walks, 5 earned runs) and he left the game complaining about a sore elbow. MRIs soon revealed that he had partially torn the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his pitching elbow. Many people, myself included, believed that it was only a matter of time before we would here he was the latest pitcher to require Tommy John surgery.
That did not happen though. After consulting three separate doctors, Tanaka and the Yankees decided they would first try taking a non-surgical method of treatment. Tanaka’s treatment involved a platelet-rich plasma injection, followed by a throwing program and exercise routine. That route allowed Tanaka to come back and make two starts in late-September to finish his very impressive rookie campaign.
So, how should we value Tanaka in fantasy baseball for 2015?
I’m not going anywhere near the Yankees’ ace next season. The progress that he has made, emphasized by the fact that he was able to pitch again at the end of the season is absolutely incredible, it is as if he has Wolverine’s blood running through his veins. That being said, he’s a major, major, gigantic injury risk going forward.
All it takes is a quick Google search and you can see that the outlook for a pitcher with a partially torn UCL is bleak. Virtually everybody who’s taken the rest-and-rehab route regarding a UCL tear has eventually gone under the knife, even Adam Wainwright who managed to pitch with his partially torn UCL for nearly seven years succumbed to surgery (and he is an extreme outlier).
Tanaka’s elbow is a ticking time bomb that could go off at any second. Not only does he have the dark cloud that is the history of pitchers with partially torn UCL’s hanging over his head; he also thrives off of one the most well known elbow-killing pitches in all of baseball, the splitter.
Splitters have been known as an elbow killer for quite some time now. It was virtually out of baseball by the end of the 1990’s after guys like John Smoltz complained of elbow pain. Unlike fastballs and curveballs, where most of the effort comes from the shoulder, a splitter requires more torque on the elbow and the forearm. The more torque put on the elbow, the more susceptible it is for injury.
This season, Tanaka was just one of 15 pitchers to throw at least 130 innings and even have a splitter in their repertoire; and he’s one of just 11 pitchers to throw it for at least 10 percent of their pitches. Tanaka threw his splitter for 25 percent of his pitches. That’s right, a pitch that most pitchers don’t even use at all because they fear it could hurt their elbow is a pitch that Tanaka threw 25 percent of the time (even when he came back and made his two starts at the end of the season he was throwing his splitter at a 25 percent usage rate). Can we honestly expect his partially torn elbow to hold up if he keeps throwing such a strenuous pitch in such heavy doses?
I love Tanaka as a talent. I love winning in fantasy baseball more though. There’s simply no way at all I could get myself to spend a quality draft pick on a guy who is that obvious of an injury risk. My advice is to talk Tanaka up heading into your draft and sucker somebody else into taking him. Come July, you will be chuckling to yourself while the Tanaka owner in your league is scouring the free agent pool for his replacement.