(Almost none of those were hit hard. Courtesy of Texas Leaguers)
The last time Masahiro Tanaka faced the Chicago Cubs was the first time he faced the Cubs. It was his 3rd career Major League start and arguably his best one to date, even after his complete game shutout against the Mets last week. He went 8 shutout innings on that day last month, allowing only a pair of infield singles with 1 walk and 10 strikeouts.
Tonight Tanaka makes his 9th career start and once again he'll be facing the Cubs. This start will mark the first time that a team has gotten a second look at him, and with the way Tanaka has altered his approach from team to team and the way he worked against the Cubs on 4/16, it will be worth paying attention to how he changes things up this time.
In his first start against the Cubbies, Tanaka followed the plan I expected him to pretty closely. He pounded the strike zone (76 of his 107 pitches went for strikes), got ahead early, and forced a lot of weak swings from the young Chicago hitters. Rather than work off his 4-seamer, Tanaka featured the sinker as his primary fastball, throwing it 38 times overall (38.4% usage) and 13 times as his first pitch to the 26 batters he faced. 11 of those 13 first-pitch sinkers went for strikes, as did 10 of the 13 second-pitch sinkers he threw, so Tanaka was very good at getting early strikes to set up his offspeed stuff. When he got to 2 strikes, that's when Tanaka went to the splitter. He threw 16 of his 29 splitters in 2-strike counts, getting swings on 10 of them and swings and misses on 5.
That the Cubs attempted to bunt for hits early (Junior Lake in the top of the 2nd) and resorted to it again late (Anthony Rizzo in the 7th) proves how nasty Tanaka was from the start on 4/16. He sprinkled in his 4-seamer and slider for strikes to change things up and a few show-me curveballs to keep Chicago on their collective toes, but it was mostly sinker/splitter and it was damn effective.
Against the Mets last Wednesday, Tanaka was more 4-seamer-heavy than sinker and he had a real good swing-and-miss slider. I'm anticipating he'll use those 2 pitches more tonight to changes things up on a team that has some first-hand experience against him. He'll have the advantage of pitching to a pitcher a few times this time instead of a DH, so if his command is sharp again he could have an even better outing tonight than he did last month.
(Pitch usage numbers also courtesy of TL)