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Just a couple weeks left in the regular season, and there are a few top-shelf arms that have yet to be covered in our weekly notes this season. Let’s jump in and check on three pitchers with very different pedigrees and backgrounds.

Masahiro Tanaka

The fact that Tanaka has continued to pitch effectively for the past two seasons despite a compromised UCL is fascinating in and of itself, but we had also come to accept that the modern version of Tanaka just wasn’t as dominant as the rookie version. High ceilings had been lowered and were matched with relatively high floors, creating a slim margin of performance that Tanaka seemed to treat like a tightrope at times during the past two seasons. Over the past couple weeks, however, something has clicked, and he now leads the AL with a 2.97 ERA.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

September 15

7.0

1

4

0

3

0

93

September 10

7.1

1

5

1

0

10

102

September 5

6.1

2

7

0

3

4

105

Tanaka is fresh off an excellent start in Boston against the Red Sox, limiting baseball’s highest-scoring offense to one run over 7.0 innings, though his zero in the strikeout column stands out as boldly as the 10-spot that preceded it. The right-hander struck out no more than seven batters in any of his first 22 starts this season, but then he went on a three-start string with eight or more Ks in each turn, topping out at nine in a game. His big start against the Rays on September 10th seemed like an impossible statline in the first half of the season, particularly since the Yankees have been very cautious with Tanaka’s pitch count.

The three-walk games are somewhat of an anomaly for Tanaka, who walked just one batter across six August starts (39.0 combined innings) and who has walked three or more batters in just two other starts this season. Not that the recent dose of extra free passes has helped, given that his opponents have scored just six runs combined over his previous six starters and 40.1 innings pitched, a stretch that includes 32 strikeouts and just seven walks (even with six of those walks coming in two games).

The key to Tanaka’s strikeout prowess is his trap-door splitter, a pitch that falls off a cliff near the end of the flight path when he has it working at peak. In the game against the Rays, seven of the ten strikeouts were finished by the splitter, according to Brooks. Two of the other three strikeouts were finished by the slider, a pitch that had been featured during the recent three-game run of empty swings, leading the arsenal with ten of his strikeouts over that stretch. Interestingly, Tanaka is throwing softer on average than he has in any other month this season, averaging just 91.3 mph across three September starts. I’m an unabashed fan of the split-finger fastball, as when a pitcher can command it the pitch can be devastating, with no clues in spin or arm angle to tip off a wise hitter.

Dellin Betances

The Yankees have broken up the three musketeers at the back of their bullpen, but now that the smoke has cleared, the man left standing casts a large shadow over the rest of the closers in the American League. Betances has been virtually unhittable for three years now, with a K rate that should be unsustainable and yet somehow keeps reaching higher, including a career-best 42.4-percent strikeout rate (15.4 K/9) this season following consecutive campaigns at an elite 39.5 percent. His dominance seemingly knows no bounds, except that we’ve discovered those performance boundaries over the past ten days.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

September 15

0.1

4

3

1

1

0

21

September 14

1.0

2

1

0

0

1

20

September 13

1.1

0

1

0

0

2

16

September 9

1.0

1

3

0

0

2

17

September 6

0.1

2

2

0

3

1

40

His control was clearly out of whack in the game on September 6, and since then he’s only walked one batter in 3.2 innings. Betances’ command was off in his last game, too, which combined with a pair of seeing-eye singles to setup the game-losing, three-run home run that Betances surrendered to Hanley Ramirez.

Everybody loses it from time to time; what’s incredible is that Betances doesn’t lose it more often.

Betances has a very open stride, such that his front leg comes down to the left of the imaginary centerline that runs from middle of rubber to middle of home plate, landing with his hips already opened. It’s the pitching equivalent of a hitter who steps in the bucket, except that for some players, the open stance helps them to align the gears of rotation – and Betances appears to be one of those pitchers. Open strides are rare – the average pitcher is slightly closed, with the front foot landing to the arm-side of the centerline – and those pitchers who employ an open stride often struggle to repeat the direction of their stride and the positioning of their landing.

An extreme example of this is Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher whose lower-half positioning is so erratic that the mound looks like a minefield by the time he’s done with it. When the lower half is that volatile, it makes it nearly impossible for a pitcher to coordinate the upper-half into a consistent release point. Betances may have a walk rate that is near league average this season, but he has cut the frequency from last year’s 12.1 percent to its current level of 8.5 percent and he is still above the 7.0-percent mark of 2014. In his case the walk rate has bounced around, but it’s a dangerous game to read too much into his year-to-year changes for a few reasons.

For starters, there’s the issue of reliever sample size, combined with the fact that walks are often a poor proxy for pitch command in the first place. More specific to Betances, his stuff is so ridiculous that he can invoke swings regardless of whether he’s hitting targets, and his top-end velocity gives batters little time before they just have to pull the trigger. This allows Betances to get away with poor command, often invoking strikes on badly-executed pitches due to the sheer velocity and movement, and it results in a walk rate that is inconsistent with his ability to hit targets.

Johnny Cueto

Cueto is making good on the Giants’ investment in the first year of a six-year deal, currently leading the majors with 207.3 innings pitched and sporting a 2.86 ERA that ranks seventh in the majors – it’s also the seventh-best mark in the National League, as the top eight pitchers on the ERA board currently hail from the senior circuit. DRA sees Cueto as a 3.50 pitcher, a solid-yet-unspectacular value that ranks 26th of 84 qualifiers. He has enjoyed a great string to start the month of September, particularly considering that he has been facing some difficult offenses and has pitched in some rough venues: at the Cubs, at the Diamondbacks and home versus the Cardinals in his most recent turn.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

September 15

9.0

2

5

0

1

7

105

September 10

7.0

2

3

1

2

6

89

September 4

7.0

1

5

0

1

5

97

For a pitcher whose durability was once called into question, Cueto has now pitched 200 frames in each of three consecutive seasons and four of the last five. The veteran loves to mess with batter timing by throwing all sorts of wrenches into his delivery – covered in detail here – everything from head fakes to quick-pitches and variations of his Luis Tiant twist away from the hitter. I typically don’t recommend that a pitcher overcomplicates things by trying to master multiple timing patterns, but that’s a general rule, and when a veteran with the pitch-command pedigree that Cueto has earned and the proven ability to repeat his release point while using these myriad approaches, then I’m all for it. I do feel that he got a bit too fancy with the extra-curricular activities last season, such that even he struggled to repeat the timing of his delivery, but Cueto is all straightened out right now and lines up perfectly behind Madison Bumgarner should the Giants make the playoffs.

Pitch command is Cueto’s calling card, and that exceptional command extends to every pitch in his considerable six-pitch repertoire. The changeup has been Cueto’s best pitch for most of his career, and 2016 is no different, as opposing batters are hitting just .218 with a .071 isolated power in 156 at-bats that have ended on the change, with 56 of those at-bats ending with a strikeout. That said, all of his pitches have been working in September, with an opponents batting average of .200 or less and multiple strikeouts for every pitch type.