The mystery of Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka has been plain awful so far this season. His team says it's just a rut. He insists he's healthy. So what exactly is wrong with the ace of the Yankees? Elsa/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- It's a mystery, at the moment. The ace of the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka, has been terrible this year.

While he's 5-3 and did throw a shutout at Fenway Park at the end of April, his 2017 ERA -- 6.56, in nine starts -- is awful. Lately, he's been even worse.

When the Yankees are asked what's wrong with Tanaka, they say it's just a rut. Is he hurt? They say no. Is his velocity down? No, again. So why is Tanaka not Tanaka?

"I feel like I'm in a sort of deep hole. But I can't just put my head down. I have to lift my head up and work on the things that I need to work on, and try to fix what I need to fix and move forward."
Masahiro Tanaka

It isn't an easy answer, but the question will linger into Friday night when Tanaka takes the mound against the Oakland A's. In his most recent start, in Tampa on Saturday, Tanaka lasted just three innings and allowed six runs (all earned), including three homers.

“We haven’t seen a drop in velocity,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We haven’t seen Tanaka not being able to make his start. We haven’t seen him receiving extra treatment. He’s just in a little rut now that he needs to get out of. He feels fine."

If he's indeed healthy, this would be the worst non-injury slump of Tanaka’s career. Over his past four starts, his ERA is 10.50 and he's served up 10 home runs in 18 innings. In three of the four starts, he's pitched on at least six days' rest, which, in theory, is supposed to help Tanaka because it's more like the once-a-week schedule in Japan.

“The schedule has been favorable in a sense, to get extra days,” Girardi said. “We’ve had a ton of off days, so maybe getting on every fifth day will help. Who knows?”

Tanaka's splitter has been off, while his fastball -- never his go-to pitch -- has been getting drilled. Tanaka is throwing 56 percent of his fastballs in the strike zone, up 6 percent compared to his first three seasons in the majors. While hitters were batting .318 on the pitch from 2014 to 2016, that has jumped to .390, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Meanwhile, he's served up three home runs with his money pitch, the splitter, compared to four all last season.

Tanaka sounds a bit shaken, but he vowed his mind will be right.

“I feel like I’m in a sort of deep hole,” Tanaka told reporters through an interpreter. “But I can’t just put my head down. I have to lift my head up and work on the things that I need to work on, and try to fix what I need to fix and move forward. It’s a grind. Definitely it’s a grind, and it’s frustrating, but I’m trying to get it right.”

The Yankees claim they have found mechanical issues that Tanaka has been fine-tuning between starts. This is a common practice among pitchers, but it seems pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Tanaka are doing more heavy lifting these days.

“He is solid mentally,” Rothschild said. “He understands things. I think he has a pretty good perspective on it. I think, at the end of the day, when you have pitched as well as he has for the length of time, things have a way of evening out.”

A few things are hanging over Tanaka. While it is likely the Yankees could add a starter if they're still in contention in July, they'll likely need Tanaka in top form if they're going to make a sustained run to and through the playoffs.

Tanaka is owed $67 million from 2018 to 2020, but he can opt out of those last three years of his deal in pursuit of more riches. Even if Tanaka pitches great the rest of the way, though, the slight tear in his right elbow ligament remains a concern. Any team interested in signing him would have to wonder about his health.

Now, with Tanaka’s struggles, the questions around that torn UCL intensify. Tanaka says he's healthy. The Yankees agree. Why he is struggling? That remains a mystery.