Is Austin Romine the answer to Masahiro Tanaka's early-season struggles?

Saturday May 27th, 2017

Before Friday night’s start against the Athletics, Masahiro Tanaka’s last two trips to the mound could charitably be described as wretched. Over 4 2/3 brutal innings, the Japanese righthander was lit up for 14 runs on 16 hits, including seven home runs, as both the Astros and Rays made mincemeat out of his offerings. Those two clunkers took his ERA to a hideous 6.56 for 2017 and marked the third time already this season that he had given up six or more runs in three or fewer innings—something that didn’t happen once last year.

But the Tanaka who took the hill to face Oakland was a far sight from the pale imitation that was clobbered by Houston and Tampa. Over 7 1/3 brilliant innings, Tanaka held the A’s to a single run on five hits, walked no one and set a new career high with 13 strikeouts, the most by a Yankees starter in just over two years (albeit in a game where he got no run support and lost, 4–1). Using a dazzling mix of four-seamers, sinkers, sliders and his signature split-finger fastball, he drew a staggering 26 swings-and-misses on the night, all on the slider and splitter, and struck out six different Oakland hitters two or more times.

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The outing has to be as relieving as it is perplexing for the Yankees, given that the Tanaka they saw tonight wasn’t materially different from the one who’s pitched all season with regards to velocity, release point and pitch selection—and the one who, between his Opening Day clunker and his last two disaster starts, had posted a 3.10 ERA over 40 2/3 innings. But there is one variable that seems to have a huge effect on Tanaka’s performance, and it’s the man behind the plate: backup catcher Austin Romine.

The numbers with Romine catching Tanaka versus starter Gary Sanchez are stark: In six starts with the former, Tanaka has a 2.21 ERA in 36 2/3 innings; in five starts with the latter, he has a 12.27 mark in 18 1/3 frames. It was Romine doing the catching against the A’s, and with Tanaka turning in one of his best starts of the season, it’s worth wondering if manager Joe Girardi will make that pairing a permanent one going forward.

Personal catchers do exist in baseball, though they aren’t widespread. One of the better-known partnerships was that of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and veteran A.J. Ellis, who caught virtually every one of the lefty’s starts from 2012 until ’16, when he was traded to the Marlins midseason. Last year, the Cubs had David Ross behind the plate for 31 of Jon Lester’s 33 starts, and the Mets paired Noah Syndergaard with Rene Rivera 23 out of 31 times in 2016.

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The personal catcher is a strategy usually reserved for a team’s ace (or for a pitcher whose stuff requires it, e.g. knuckleballers R.A. Dickey or Tim Wakefield, each of whom had a backstop just for their starts), as any increased comfort on the starter’s part is usually worth the attendant dropoff in offense by going from the regular catcher to his backup. That would definitely be the case with Romine and Sanchez. The former is a career .224/.259/.332 hitter in 441 plate appearances across six seasons; the latter is one of the best power-hitting catchers in the game and the future of the franchise at the position. But if there is any truth to the Tanaka-Romine combo being better, is that what the Yankees should do going forward?

It’s hard to tell if Romine and Tanaka really do make for an improvement, or if their success together is just random luck. There was certainly something special to that duo last year as well, with Tanaka posting a 2.16 ERA over nine starts and 58 1/3 innings with Romine catching him—but he was even better with Sanchez, putting up a 1.94 ERA in 46 1/3 innings. (Brian McCann caught the rest of Tanaka’s starts last year, with the righty slumping to a 4.17 ERA across 95 innings.) So it’s not as if Tanaka simply hasn’t pitched effectively to Sanchez in the past.

Digging into this season’s starts, meanwhile, doesn’t reveal any real pitch selection pattern among catchers. With Sanchez, Tanaka seemed to opt for more sinkers, while Romine got a higher percentage of cutters. But those could as easily be team-specific gameplans as they could be catcher calls, and again, there’s no demonstrable consistency on Tanaka’s part with regards to any pitch from one start to the next, save an abundance of splitters and sliders.

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One area where the two catchers do split is by framing metrics. By Baseball Prospectus’ measurements, Romine is 13th among all backstops this year in adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average (which takes into account Framing Runs, Blocking Runs and Throwing Runs), while Sanchez lags toward the back of the pack at No. 48. Those are numbers based off of tiny sample sizes, though, and would represent a massive leap for Romine, who graded out negatively in framing last season. And while framing is important, it would seem to be less of an issue for a pitcher like Tanaka, who succeeds more by getting batters to chase stuff outside of the zone then by pinpointing strikes on the corners; against Oakland, for example, all 13 of his punchouts were of the swinging variety.

It’s likely worth a deeper and more thorough look into Tanaka’s starts with Romine versus his starts with Sanchez to see if there is any notable difference in the approach and results. For now, the decision belongs to him and to Girardi as to who will be behind the plate the next time he takes the mound.

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