Masahiro Tanaka’s Concussion Adds to Yankees’ Question Marks

No sooner had the Yankees opened their summer camp — or spring training 2.0, or whatever we’re calling this tense and perhaps tenuous ramp-up to the long-delayed 2020 season — on Saturday than they got their first scare: the sight of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka being drilled in the head by a line drive hot off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton. The 31-year-old righty never lost consciousness but was taken to the hospital for testing and further evaluation, and while he was released, on Sunday he was diagnosed with a concussion. The terrifying sequence was a reminder that the coronavirus isn’t the only thing for players to fear during this abbreviated build-up to the regular season, but all things considered, both he and the Yankees look quite lucky right now.

At Yankee Stadium, in a simulated game that marked their first formal workout of the restart, Tanaka had faced Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres before Stanton stepped in. The slugger smoked a line-drive comebacker that struck the pitcher on the right side of the head and ricocheted high in the air (I’ll leave it to you to find the video). Keep in mind that since the advent of Statcast in 2015, only Judge and Nelson Cruz have higher average exit velocities than Stanton’s 93.4 mph — he is emphatically not the guy you want pounding a ball off your noggin. According to James Paxton, the ball came off the bat at a sizzling 112 mph. Tanaka fell to the ground, writhing in pain, and stayed down for about five minutes before sitting up and eventually being helped off the field with the assistance of two trainers.

In the immediate aftermath of the injury, Jordan Montgomery, the next pitcher in the simulated game, opted to throw from behind a protective L-screen, something that manager Aaron Boone said they have the option of doing when throwing under such circumstances; Paxton did so as well on Sunday. Via’s Bryan Hoch:

“I was a little timid after seeing that, a little squirrely,” Montgomery said. “That’s kind of a freak accident, a one-in-a-million chance of happening. And then it does, it’s terrifying. Especially as a teammate and friend, you don’t want to see anybody hurting. It’s really hard to see. We’re all thinking about him and hoping for the best.”

Tanaka underwent a CT scan and other tests at New York Presbyterian Hospital before being released. That evening, about five hours after he was struck, he took to Twitter to provide status updates in both English and Japanese:

Tanaka entered MLB’s concussion protocol, and while he was described as “acting like his normal self” upon returning to the team on Sunday, he was diagnosed with a concussion that was classified as “mild,” which doesn’t mean it’s minor. As the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Brendan Kuty reminded readers, after Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier was diagnosed with a mild concussion in February 2018, he didn’t make a game appearance for two months, and had ongoing complications that limited him to three games after the All-Star break.

All of which is to say that Tanaka isn’t necessarily out of the woods. He won’t be able to return to baseball activities until being cleared by a doctor, and while there’s hope that he can build towards a full workload, he’ll likely be behind the team’s other starters once the season opens on July 23. The possibility of further complications down the road can’t be discounted.

Tanaka is coming off an inconsistent season (4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 2.7 WAR in a staff-high 182 innings) as well as October surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, and his latest scare is yet another reminder of the question marks looming over the Yankees’ rotation. Luis Severino, who threw just 12 regular season innings last year due to a bout of rotator cuff inflammation and then a Grade 2 strain of his latissimus dorsi, is out for the season due to Tommy John surgery. Domingo Germán, who led the staff with 18 wins while ranking third among starters in WAR (2.1) and fourth in innings (143.1), is out as well, serving the remainder of his suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy; he still has 63 games to go, though the balance won’t carry over to 2021.

Paxton, the team’s top starter by WAR (3.5), ERA (3.82), and FIP (3.86) last year, underwent surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc in February; the good news is that he was reportedly sharp during Sunday’s simulated game, his first time facing live hitters since the surgery. Montgomery, who appeared to have pitched his way into the rotation in March, started 29 games for the Yankees as a rookie in 2017, but has made just eight big league appearances since due to Tommy John surgery, including his 2019 season debut on September 15. J.A. Happ is coming off his worst season since 2014 (4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 1.3 WAR) and was on the trading block in December, before the team began worrying about the symptoms that led Paxton to surgery.

Of course, the Yankees did sign Gerrit Cole to a record-setting $324 million deal in December, and those lingering question marks are part of the reason, though not all of those situations had come to a head at the time. They’ve also got decent depth behind the remaining group, led by swingman — or swing-and-miss man, given his career 28.3% strikeout rate — Jonathan Loaisiga, top prospect Deivi Garcia (43rd among our Top 100 Prospects in February), and prospects Clarke Schmidt and Michael King. I covered all but Schmidt — the only one from this group not on the 40-man roster — in the context of Paxton’s injury; since then, he’s asserted himself as an option despite having just 114 minor league innings under his belt, capped by 19 at Double-A Trenton last year. The team’s 2017 first-round pick was chosen 16th overall out of the University of South Carolina despite having undergone Tommy John surgery less than six weeks before being drafted. Ranked sixth on the Yankees prospect list by Eric Longenhagen, and among the top 100 overall by The Athletic’s Keith Law (51st), Baseball America (62nd), ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel (81st) and MLB Pipeline (88th), he’s a 6-foot-1, 200-pound 24-year-old who has a 91-95 mph fastball among his four average-or-better pitches, with a funky delivery helping both his curve and slider (the latter of which was rated as best pitch by Longenhagen, 55/60) play up against righties.

For all of that depth, the Yankees did get sobering news this weekend regarding one potential rotation option: righty Luis Cessa tested positive for COVID-19 before the league’s administrative intake screenings. He’s been dealing with “very mild symptoms,” according to Boone, while second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the other Yankee whom Boone revealed to have tested positive, has been asymptomatic.

Despite those concerns, and largely on the strength of Cole’s projected 2.4 WAR, the Yankees currently own the top spot in our rotation depth charts, albeit in a virtual tie with the Rays and Nationals. Among their American League competitors, they hardly have a monopoly on question marks in their rotations. The Rays’ Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow combined for just 35 starts last year due to arm ailments (loose bodies requiring surgery for the former, forearm tightness for the latter), and Yonny Chirinos is among the team’s players who have been absent from workouts without an explanation from the team thus far, which, as the Tampa Bay Times‘ Mark Topkin wrote, makes them subject to speculation that their absence might be related to a positive COVID-19 test. The Red Sox have lost Chris Sale to Tommy John surgery, and Eduardo Rodriguez has yet to report while awaiting test results, as he was exposed to somebody with the virus.

Outside the AL East, the Astros, whose rotation looked rather thin after losing Cole, Wade Miley, and Collin McHugh to free agency, have Justin Verlander coming back from March groin surgery and Lance McCullers Jr. returning from Tommy John surgery, and if that’s not enough, Jose Urquidy reportedly “has a condition preventing him from reporting to field.” The A’s have Sean Manaea coming off a season in which he made just five starts due to shoulder surgery, and Mike Fiers and Jesús Luzardo missing from camp due to “pending issues” of an unspecified nature; at this writing, the team is also one of several dealing with a delay in receiving testing results. For the moment, at least, the Indians and Twins look to be in better shape than in March due to the recoveries of Carlos Carrasco (elbow inflammation), Mike Clevinger (meniscus surgery), and Rich Hill (elbow surgery).

Of course, it still remains to be seen how safely and effectively teams can build up their starters’ workloads before Cole faces off with Max Scherzer at Nationals Park on Opening Day, July 23, never mind how safely they can do anything at this point while keeping the spread of the virus from overtaking their camps. Suffice it to say that Tanaka may not be the only one with a headache in the coming days.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Spa City
3 years ago

What a nightmare for a Tanaka, and it must have been terrifying for everybody there. Thank God he is recovering. That could have been so much worse. I hope the concussion does not leave him with long term effects.

As a 10U travel ball parent, come-backers are nightmarish. I thank God my boy is a catcher and he is rarely asked to pitch.

My daughter is a 14U travel softball player and she occasionally pitches – at least in softball pitchers wear face masks. The masks don’t cover their entire heads but there is some protection.

As non-traditional as it will sound… I wish baseball pitchers wore masks at least when they are young.

3 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

Perhaps with the normalization of wearing masks in public, support for things like facemasks and/or padded hats within baseball in the name of safety may gain some steam. Probably wishful thinking on my part, but maybe some small slice of good to come out of this pandemic will be a willingness to abandon “tradition” if it means promoting health and safety.

Psychic... Powerless...
3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

I wish wearing masks was normalized, but half the country seems to view it as a sign of Communism.

Smiling Politely
3 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

I’m with you. Can’t we at least acknowledge that if 30 yr old millionaires want to risk their health for lots of money, ok, but maybe 14 yr olds shouldn’t have to trade their health for nothing? I know I would have *hated* it, but that’s how people felt about batting helmets, too, and we got over that pretty quickly.