TAMPA — Larry Rothschild isn’t going to fret over the readings coming out of the speed guns tracking Masahiro Tanaka’s pitches.
“I know he will pitch whatever the velocity is. A lot has been made of it,’’ the Yankees’ pitching coach said of Tanaka’s fastball velocity ever since he suffered a small tear to the right ulnar collateral ligament in July 2014. “He is not a velocity guy, he is a pitcher. He knows what to do with the ball in his hand.’’
Tanaka made his first start of the exhibition season Tuesday at George M. Steinbrenner Field in a 9-5 win over the Tigers, and the gun readings weren’t much different than they were last March 6.
That’s when Tanaka, who had a bone spur removed from the right elbow the previous October, threw his fastball in the 87- to 88-mph range in the first inning and 90 to 91 in the second frame. On Tuesday, his fastball ranged from 89- 92 mph.
According to PITCHf/x, Tanaka’s fastball averaged 92 mph last season. In 2014 it was 93.
“I liked everything except for the very first pitch,’’ said Tanaka, who sailed the first pitch of the game over Tiger leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler’s head.
In two innings, Tanaka pitched around third baseman Chase Headley’s fielding error to start the game and faced the minimum nine batters. He fanned two on splitters that were clocked in the 86-87 mph range.
“He was sneaky fast and sharp with good command,’’ a scout in attendance said of the 28-year-old Tanaka, who can opt out of the final three legs of a seven-year deal for $155 million after this season. By doing that he would be leaving $65 million on the table.
CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Tanaka are rotation locks if they can leave the palm trees behind without a medical problem. There are five candidates for the final two spots, which makes it the best competition in camp.
Yet, the one thing that has stood out for a long time is this: Tanaka is an ace of a rotation that needs him to at least be the pitcher he was last season, when he went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA in 31 starts and hurled 199 ²/₃ innings. The victories, starts and innings were Tanaka’s highest in the three years as a Yankee.
Catcher Gary Sanchez, who homered, said there was room for improvement.
“The split was really good and the slider,’’ Sanchez said. “The location of the fastball was a little off today. It’s the first start. I know he will locate better, especially the fastball.’’
A year ago at this time the Yankees didn’t know what they had in Tanaka because of the elbow procedure and how it would affect him. This past winter, with no rehabbing in the offseason program, Tanaka arrived in Florida further advanced.
“He was able to throw more this winter. He worked on stuff and got ready in a little different fashion than last year,’’ Rothschild said. “He can work on things without worrying where his stuff is and have a peaceful mind.’’
Bench coach Rob Thomson, who managed the club because Joe Girardi was in Fort Myers running a split squad, said Tanaka’s day was a success on several levels.
“For the first time out, if they are maintaining their delivery, throwing strikes and using their secondary pitches and when they hand the ball off to the next guy they say they are fine, it’s been a good day,’’ Thomson said. “That’s what he did and his stuff was good. All his stuff was good. His velocity seemed to be up more than it was last year at this time. … His stuff was sharp.’’
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