TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was anointed as the Opening Day starter just 10 minutes into the official opening of Yankees camp, and as his fourth season as the staff ace is set to begin, the right-hander's confidence may never have been greater.Tanaka is ready to handle his third consecutive
TAMPA, Fla. -- Masahiro Tanaka was anointed as the Opening Day starter just 10 minutes into the official opening of Yankees camp, and as his fourth season as the staff ace is set to begin, the right-hander's confidence may never have been greater.
Tanaka is ready to handle his third consecutive opener after thoroughly dominating Grapefruit League competition, holding opponents to just one earned run in 23 2/3 innings (0.38 ERA) with five walks and 28 strikeouts.
"I'm satisfied with how I was able to go through Spring Training," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I'm also ready for the season to start."
• Tanaka has repertoire to win AL Cy Young
As Tanaka moves farther away from the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament that interrupted his 2014 debut season, he has learned how to succeed with a modified arsenal. Yet his splitter -- so devastating through that first tour through the Majors -- remains a treasured weapon.
"I would say the splitter is the key to his success," catcher Gary Sanchez said. "It's the same splitter that I've been seeing from him. It's good; same sharpness."
Statcast™ shows that Tanaka threw the most splitters in the Majors last year (885), with opponents hitting .169 and slugging .244 on at-bats ending with that pitch. That was third lowest among 21 pitchers who had at least 50 such at-bats; only Junior Guerra (.208) and Tyler Clippard (.224) produced lower slugging percentages on splitters. No wonder opponents managed just nine hits (.115) against Tanaka this spring.
"He's not a velocity guy. He's a pitcher," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "He knows what to do when he's got the ball in his hand. That's what we expect."
The 28-year-old Tanaka was 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA last season, setting career highs in wins, innings (199 2/3), starts (31), strikeouts (165) and quality starts (19). When asked what would comprise a successful season for him, Tanaka replied that he hopes to make 32 or 33 starts.
"I just want to pitch as much as possible, get as many outs as possible," Tanaka said. "I think that's one of the goals for me, to stay healthy throughout the season. If you look through the league, the top-tier pitchers are pitching 220, 230 innings. So it would be great if I could get to that."
Rothschild said that Tanaka reported to Yankees camp well ahead of last year's schedule, since he went home healthy at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Following the '15 campaign, Tanaka had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow.
"He was able to throw more this winter," Rothschild said. "He couldn't possibly have come in last year the way he did this year."
If Tanaka's next six months look as good as the first few weeks did, there could be great financial rewards at the end of the schedule. Tanaka can opt out of a contract that has three years and $67 million remaining following this season, but he insists that is receiving no thought at this time.
"Obviously, I know what my contract says, but that doesn't affect how I try to perform out there," Tanaka said. "The effort that you give out each game is the same."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.