Why Masahiro Tanaka isn't worried about the health of his elbow

TAMPA, Fla. – Generally speaking, it bodes poorly when a team’s success going into a season depends upon contingencies. And yet here stand the New York Yankees, who have a bunch of ifs to show for their $215 million. As in: If CC Sabathia’s chronically degenerative knee holds up … and if Michael Pineda can make it through a full season healthy having not done so in three years … and if Ivan Nova can return from Tommy John surgery as some facsimile of his former self.

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was on the disabled list for 2 1/2 months last season. (AP)
Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was on the disabled list for 2 1/2 months last season. (AP)

The king of the ifs spends his days in Yankees camp, too, his fortunes as imperative to them as any other player to any other team. If Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow holds up – if the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament defies history and survives the season – the Yankees’ other uncertainties are of far less concern. Because as Tanaka showed last season before the pain in his elbow forced him to the disabled list for 2½ months, he is one of the finest pitchers in baseball when healthy, a rotation-fronting, strikeout-generating, five-pitch-commanding monster.

Instead, Tanaka exists in the space between coddled and pushed, neither he nor the Yankees with any concrete solutions on how to best prepare him for the season without pushing him to the point the remainder of the UCL disintegrates. The conflict colors everything with Tanaka: the inevitability of Tommy John surgery is palpable while the hope that he can be the exception, the outlier, cuts just as deep.

And for Tanaka, the latter begins with something so fundamental to success in his native Japan: pitching mechanics, something he believes led to his injury in 2014.

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“I don’t think they were solid,” Tanaka told Yahoo Sports through interpreter Shingo Horie recently. “With the right mechanics, the right form, the right balance, you’re able to throw a solid pitch. It’s not about how much power you can put on the throw. It’s more about the mechanics. That’s what I believe.

“I’m never really satisfied. Your body is different every day. You’ve got to talk with your body and make small or, sometimes, big adjustments to get that pitch form right. It’s hard to get to a point where you’re completely satisfied with your mechanics.”

In addition to any mechanical difficulties, red flags surrounded Tanaka before he arrived in Major League Baseball last year with a seven-year, $155 million contract on top of a $20 million posting fee. His workload in Japan was significant, and even though he wasn’t a regular practitioner of nagekomi – the Japanese custom of throwing hundreds of pitches a day to condition the arm – Tanaka did throw 742 pitches over a week and a half during the national high school baseball tournament.

Still, two sources who saw the MRI of Tanaka’s elbow before he signed with the Yankees said it showed no signs of structural damage before he signed last year. The injury reinforced a stereotype among Japanese fans: players come to the United States and get hurt. Whether that’s because of mechanics or different seams on the ball or the five-pitcher rotation or the lack of nagekomi is up for constant debate.

“Obviously, there’s a big difference between Japan and the States,” Tanaka said. “When I was in Japan, I was one of the pitchers who didn’t throw much in the bullpen. I came here, and it was even more limited. Which was fine by me because light catch on flat ground, I’m able to get myself to where I want to be. The Yankees staff, the pitching coaches, tell me to communicate what I want to do.”

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Tanaka throws during batting practice Monday in Tampa, Fla. (AP)
Tanaka throws during batting practice Monday in Tampa, Fla. (AP)

Which, above all, is pitch. How to ensure he does so is the problem Tanaka faces, because not even he knows if the mechanical adjustments – mostly having to do with ensuring his arm is in sync with the rest of his delivery, preventing excessive stress on the elbow – will protect his arm. He comes from a new generation of Japanese pitchers, one whose conscientiousness about their arm’s health makes older pitchers look positively anachronistic.

In 1981, Choji Murata, one of Japan’s finest pitchers, tried everything to avoid surgery on his elbow. Acupuncture, massage – anything to avoid flying to Los Angeles to meet with Dr. Frank Jobe, the genius behind the original Tommy John surgery. When asked why he was so stubborn, Murata uttered a phrase that embodied Japanese baseball as well as any.

“A man should pitch until his arm falls off,” Murata said.

Tanaka chuckled when reminded of Murata’s words, joking that if his right arm happens to spontaneously go away, “Then I’ll throw lefty.” Gallows humor is always welcome in cases of severe arm injuries, particularly knowing that in 1983, two years later, Murata finally underwent Tommy John surgery that saved his career.

Tanaka is still just 26, plenty of years beckoning, prompting fair questions about the wisdom in pushing forward rather than getting surgery out of the way. That was a decision for back in July, when he went down, and one with which Tanaka and the Yankees now must live.

Because their 2015 season was planned with him at the top of the Yankees’ rotation. He won’t be there Tuesday for their first spring training game and isn’t scheduled to pitch until sometime next week. The Yankees don’t know when, don’t know much beyond the day-to-day, spooked to plan too much because when it comes to elbow injuries, teams don’t just err on the side of caution. They cower to it.

Masahiro Tanaka will face it as best he can, face the reality of his condition and the chance that he’s the outlier. It’s the Yankees’ best hope. Their 2015 depends on it, no buts, ands or especially ifs.

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