The homer-prone ace with a flourishing finish [2017 Season Review]

ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)
ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016, it’s hard to argue that Masahiro Tanaka‘s overall numbers in 2017 weren’t disappointing. He pitched to a 4.74 ERA (107 ERA-) and allowed 35 home runs, fourth worst in baseball. Still, with the way he closed out the year, the 29-year-old starter left Yankees fans with a smile on their faces heading into next year.

Flailing in the first half

Tanaka was the perfect example of why spring training means next to nothing. He had arguably the best spring of any pitcher in baseball, then fell flat in first game of the year. He allowed five of the first six batters to reach in Tampa before allowing a pair of homers later in the game. Overall, he lasted just eight outs and gave up seven runs. Yikes.

He picked up his game towards the end of the month, closing his April with a shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Outdueling Chris Sale, he only struck out three yet never allowed Boston to threaten while inducing plenty of weak contact.

But that wasn’t a sign of things to come. May treated Tanaka poorly. He allowed four runs or more in all but one of his six starts, including six runs or more in three of them. On Derek Jeter Day (and Mother’s Day), he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings vs. Astros. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face them again, right?

In a nine-start stretch from May 2 to June 17, he allowed 18 home runs. Yikes. That included four (!) three-homer games. It seemed like every game had a few balls crushed, even at spacious road parks like Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

Returning from the Yankees’ hellish, mid-June West Coast trip, Tanaka put together a few dominant starts to end first half (not to mention him striking out 18 during two starts on that trip). He matched Yu Darvish out-for-out on June 23, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out nine. He held the Blue Jays to one run in seven innings before a less-than-stellar outing against the Brewers to close the first half with a 5.47 ERA.

Resurgence for #TANAK

But he would only fall so far. Tanaka lowered his ERA in six consecutive starts soon after the break, beginning with a near-perfect start against Tampa Bay in July at home. He hadn’t allowed a baserunner for 5.2 innings before allowing a single to Adeiny Hechavarria. He’d give up a homer to Lucas Duda, but struck out 14 and allowed just the one run in eight innings.

Tanaka held both the Mariners and Red Sox to one run in seven innings in consecutive starts before a clunker in Texas. After see-sawing between great and bad starts in September, he finished his regular season on the highest of notes, striking out a career-high 15 and surrendering just three hits in seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

For the season, tanaka struck out a career-best 194 while seeing his velocity increase across the board. His swinging strike rate was easily his best.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

However, his other peripherals (walks/HRs) and his hit rates both worsened en route to a poor regular season. Still, consecutive seasons of 30+ starts for a pitcher with injury concerns is a milestone nonetheless.

A dominant postseason

It’s easy to forget about regular season struggles when you ace your way through the postseason. With the Yankees facing elimination in ALDS Game 3, Tanaka gave them exactly what they needed for seven scoreless innings. He splittered the Indians to death and allowed just four baserunners. He got out of his only jam (started by an Aaron Judge-aided triple) with a pair of strikeouts, including one of Jay Bruce, who had hurt the Yankees significantly in Games 1 and 2. It was just a marvelous outing from the veteran starter.

Tasked with beginning ALCS Game 1, he allowed just five baserunners in six innings, but it wasn’t enough against a dominant Dallas Keuchel. His two runs allowed came on a string of hits in the fifth inning. He went away from his splitter and kept Houston off balance with his four-seamer. Regardless of the defeat, it went a lot better than his start against the same squad in May.

And then there was his Game 5 start. No offense to the Jays or Rays regular season games, or any other Tanaka start for that matter, but this was his best start since coming over from the NPB considering the circumstances. He put the Yankees one game from the World Series and put himself in line for ALCS MVP. Still relying on the fastball, he kept the ball on the ground and struck out eight. Still miss the moments when we could think about him vs. Clayton Kershaw in WS G1.

Side notes

Just a couple things to mention about Tanaka’s season. First, he continued to decrease his straight fastball usage, this year by four percent from 31.6 to 27.6 percent of the time. He upped his slider and cutter usage to make up for it and now throws the slider more often than the four-seamer. He uses his splitter just 1.3 percent less than his four-seam fastball.

Second, his home-road splits were stark. Having better stats at home is common. But for a homer-prone pitcher whose home games take place at Yankee Stadium? It’s surprising that he would have a 3.22 ERA, 112 Ks and 15 homers in 95 innings at home vs. a 6.48 ERA, 82 Ks and 20 homers in 83.1 innings on the road.

Finally, just wanted to mention that Tanaka remains a strong fielder. Pitcher fielding is such a small part of the job that it can be overlooked and he’s never been a finalist for a Gold Glove. However, he is very smooth off the mound and has made just one error in his four years in New York.

2018 Outlook

Figured I’d be writing this with Tanaka as a free agent, but as you likely know, he opted into the final three years of the deal. Three years for $67 million seems like less than he would have received on the open market, so it’s a solid deal for the Yankees. One has to wonder if his camp was worried about his medicals, but his elbow has held up just fine the last three years, so hopefully it will continue to do so for a long while.

Based on his entire tenure in pinstripes, it seems like Tanaka’s poor first half of 2017 is an outlier rather than a harbinger of bad seasons to come. The way he returned to form and then dominated in the postseason displayed the Tanaka we expected out of the spring. And if there was any doubt he could pitch in a big game, this October erased those worries completely.

For next year, Tanaka should be back at the front of the rotation alongside Luis Severino … and maybe Shohei Otani. He remains as homer-prone as ever but has learned to pitch effectively even if he gives up a long ball or two.

The Domino Effect

(New York Post)
(The face I made when my wife read me a tweet saying Tanaka would be back/New York Post)

All week I was preparing myself for the inevitable announcement that Masahiro Tanaka would opt out of his contract with the Yankees, leaving them with a big hole in the rotation. I had visions of a rotation without Tanaka and without CC Sabathia to balance the end, leaving the Yankees with only Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, and….who knows what else? Granted, the Yankees have come into years with rotations featuring way less than a top-3 Cy Young finisher, a solid veteran, and a promising youngster, it still wasn’t, as a former manager ’round here might say, what you want. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t leaving. He was coming back. He is coming back. And positivity falls into place.

Worst case scenario now, the Yankees are only looking to fill one rotation spot, and only if they opt not to give CC Sabathia the Andy Pettitte treatment, which he’s definitely earned. The best case scenario stays the same, though, as unlikely as it may be. That includes the Yankees retaining Sabathia and also landing the (potential) prize of the offseason, Shohei Otani. Yes, this would give the Yankees six starters, but as we’ve seen–hell, just look to Queens–pitching depth can disappear in the rotation of a pitch. Stocking up on starters is always a team’s best case scenario.

Even without Otani, a rotation of Severino, Tanaka, Gray, Montgomery, and Sabathia is formidable. Throw in a full season of Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson, a hopefully resurgent Dellin Betances, a healthy Adam Warren and Chad Green, and normal Aroldis Chapman and the Yankees could challenge anyone for the best pitching staff in baseball.

As he does when he pitches, Tanaka has–with this decision–inspired confidence in me for 2018. Sure, that confidence was there given the success of the team this year, but Tanaka helps push that over the edge. Starting pitching has been a weakness of the Yankees heading into the season for…many years and now, that’s not the case, regardless of what happens with CC.

A pitching staff makes, like dominoes do, things fall into place. A strong rotation gives the Yankees balance to their potent lineup. Now, as they did for parts of last year, they have a rotation and a bullpen to buoy them when the lineup goes through slumps and a lineup to push through the wall when the rotation has an off week.

Would or could all of this be true without Tanaka? Sure, they could’ve found someone to replace him and not necessarily missed a beat or a step. But I’m more fond of and confident in Tanaka than I would be or would have been in any sort of replacement for him. Is that a case of blinders or pinstripe-tinted glasses? Maybe, sure. But all I know is I’m damn glad Tanaka is going to be with the Yankees for the next few years, and I hope you are, too. Welcome home, Masa, even if you never left.

Not opting out: Masahiro Tanaka decides to stay with Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The biggest question of the offseason has been answered. Masahiro Tanaka is staying in New York.

Friday night Tanaka announced he will not opt out of the final three years and $67M remaining on his contract with the Yankees. The deadline to opt-out was Saturday night. Here is Tanaka’s statement:

“I have decided to stay with the Yankees for the next three seasons. It was a simple decision for me as I have truly enjoyed the past four years playing for this organization and for the wonderful fans of New York.

“I’m excited to continue to be a part of this team, and I’m committed to our goal of bringing a World Series Championship back to the Steinbrenner family, the Yankees organization, and the great fans of New York.”

This really surprises me. I’ve been saying that, as long as he’s healthy, Tanaka would opt-out basically since the day the Yankees signed him. And I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. Most RAB readers expected him to opt-out. My guess is either Tanaka really loves New York, the Yankees took a hard line and said they wouldn’t re-sign him if he opts out, or Tanaka is really worried about The Elbow™. Maybe some combination of all three.

So, rather than worry about finding another starting pitcher this offseason, the Yankees will get Tanaka’s age 29-31 seasons for $67M total. That is a pretty great deal. Any contender would’ve signed him to that this offseason, preferring to trade the higher average annual value for fewer years. Based on my rough numbers, the Yankees still have roughly $33M to spend this winter before hitting the $197M luxury tax threshold.

Tanaka, who turned 29 this past Wednesday, had his worst season with the Yankees in 2017. He had a 4.74 ERA (4.34 FIP) in 178.1 innings, though he was much better in the second half (3.77 ERA and 3.41 FIP) than the first (5.47 ERA and 5.04 FIP). And, of course, Tanaka was brilliant in the postseason, allowing two runs in 20 total innings in his three starts. That includes seven shutout innings against the Indians with the season on the line in Game Three of the ALDS.

The Yankees now know they’ll go into next season with Tanaka, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery in their starting rotation. CC Sabathia is a free agent and it stands to reason the team will try to bring him back on a short-term contract. The Yankees don’t figure to spend much on a fifth starter either way, Sabathia or no Sabathia. Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Chance Adams are then the Triple-A depth arms.

For now, the Yankees don’t have to worry about re-signing or replacing Tanaka. They’ve got the real thing. The Yankees are ready to win right now, they showed it this season, and getting the 2014-16 versions of Tanaka will make this club that much more dangerous in 2018. Welcome back, Masahiro.

After deep playoff run, the Yankees will again have to monitor pitcher workloads in 2018

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

At some point in the coming days, we’ll find out whether the Yankees need to add one starting pitcher this offseason, or two. The deadline for Masahiro Tanaka to opt-out of his contract is Saturday, and if he opts out, the Yankees will need to replace Tanaka and CC Sabathia. If he doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will only have to replace Sabathia. And they very well could replace Sabathia with Sabathia. Re-signing him seems like a definite possibility.

As things stand right now, the only thing we know for sure about the 2018 rotation is that it will include Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery. My guess is both Chad Green and Adam Warren will come to Spring Training stretched out as starters, though the smart money is on both going back to the bullpen. Luis Cessa and Domingo German will be around as depth, plus Chance Adams and maybe Justus Sheffield will debut at some point in 2018 as well.

This year the Yankees had to monitor the workloads of all their starting pitchers for different reasons. Severino and Montgomery are young pitchers gradually increasing their workloads. The Yankees have handled Tanaka with kid gloves since his 2014 elbow injury. Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. Gray has had some injury problems in recent years as well, so giving him extra rest from time to time was a priority.

And, as things stand now, the Yankees are again going to have to monitor the workloads of their starters next season thanks to their deep postseason run. Severino and Montgomery threw more innings this season than ever before. By a lot too.

  • Severino: 209.1 total innings (previous career high: 161.2 innings in 2015)
  • Montgomery: 163.1 total innings (previous career high: 139.1 innings in 2016)

The Yankees were so concerned about Montgomery’s workload — big league innings are not the same as minor league innings because there’s more stress and intensity involved — that they went out and added Jaime Garcia so they could send Montgomery to Triple-A to control his innings there. Severino seemed to tire out a bit in the postseason. I thought he was noticeably fatigued in the fourth inning of ALCS Game Six.

This isn’t just about raw innings totals though. Montgomery and especially Severino pitched deeper into the year than ever before. The Yankees were one game away from the World Series! That means a shorter offseason recover. And this applies to the veterans too. Tanaka and Sabathia, should they come back, as well as Gray will miss out on a few extra weeks to rest this winter because of the postseason run.

The whole World Series hangover phenomenon is not new. Pitchers who pitch deep into the postseason and have shorter offseasons than usual have been coming back the next year and struggling for a long time now. That’s part of what made Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera so great. Those guys played seven-month seasons, not six-month seasons, because the Yankees were always in the playoffs. Yet they never broke down physically.

As much as we’d like them to turn out that way, the Yankees can’t proceed under the assumption Severino and Montgomery are essentially unbreakable like Pettitte and Rivera. This year they had to be careful with their workloads eclipsing their previous career highs. Next year they’ll have to worry about any lingering effects from those big workloads this year, and well as the shorter offseason that comes with going to Game Seven of the ALCS.

The Yankees know this, of course. Remember the Javy Vazquez trade? The second one? The Yankees made that trade because Sabathia, Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett worked hard in 2009 and pitched into November en route to the World Series championship. The Yankees wanted an innings eater to help lighten the load on the other guys. So they went out and got Vazquez, who at the time had just thrown 190+ innings for the tenth straight season to bolster the back of the rotation.

Now, the Vazquez trade didn’t work out in 2010. He stunk. But the idea was sound. Get another innings eater for the back of the rotation so it’s easier to pull Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett a little earlier than usual without overtaxing the bullpen following their long 2009 seasons. That’s where the Yankees are now. Their starters just threw a ton of innings and pitched deep into October, and there might be a carryover effect in 2018.

Perhaps the need to add rotation depth this winter isn’t as great as it was following 2009. The farm system is much richer now. Cessa, German, Adams, and Caleb Smith are basically MLB ready. Back in 2009, their best MLB ready pitching prospects were, uh, Ivan Nova? Zach McAllister? Good big leaguers! But the farm system was much thinner, and the Yankees didn’t have an Adams waiting, that top pitching prospect, or a Sheffield not far behind.

I’ve always been a pitching depth guy. Bring in as many viable starters as possible and don’t worry about where they all fit, because odds are you’ll need all of them at some point anyway. If the Yankees re-sign Sabathia, retain Tanaka, and bring in a veterans innings dude who pushes Montgomery to Triple-A to start 2018, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. Montgomery would be back in MLB before you know it. The long season and big workloads are something the Yankees have to be cognizant of next year, and that could mean making another Vazquez-esque trade.

Poll: Masahiro Tanaka’s opt-out clause

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

At some point in the next ten days, Masahiro Tanaka and his agent will have to make a decision about his opt-out clause. The decision is due three days after the end of the World Series, which means it could come as soon as next Tuesday (if there’s a sweep) or as late as next Saturday (if it goes seven games). So far Tanaka has ducked all questions about the opt-out.

“I haven’t had a chance to think about my contract,” said Tanaka through his interpreter following the ALCS Game Seven loss the other day. “From a player’s standpoint, you don’t truly understand how you are perceived by other teams. The season really was a grind and a fight throughout the season. I can say I didn’t step away from it … I don’t know how it is going to work out.”

Over the last four years the perception of the opt-out decision has changed dramatically. When Tanaka hurt his elbow in 2014, there was no way he’d opt-out. When he earned Cy Young votes last year, he was definitely going to opt-out. When he couldn’t stop giving up homers in the first half this year, he wasn’t going to opt-out. Then when he dominated in the postseason, okay, yeah, he’s opting out.

Fans and analysts tend to look at this stuff too closely. On a day-to-day basis, almost. In reality, Tanaka and his agent are going to take a step back, examine the market for a free agent starting pitcher, and determine whether walking away from three years and $67M makes sense. One bad start in May or one great start in October won’t have a major impact on the decision. This is a big picture decision. Let’s break it down.

The Case For Not Opting Out

This is the easy one, so we’ll start here. Despite his postseason exploits, Tanaka did not pitch well during the 2017 regular season. Fifty-eight pitchers threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this season. Here are Tanaka’s ranks:

  • ERA: 4.74 (50th)
  • FIP: 4.34 (36th)
  • fWAR: +2.7 (33rd)
  • bWAR: +1.0 (51st)

Not good! Furthermore, Tanaka’s elbow is widely regarded as a ticking time bomb. He had the partial ligament tear back in 2014, and while the elbow hasn’t given him any problems since, most expect him to have Tommy John surgery at some point. Adam Wainwright pitched for five years with a partial tear before the ligament gave out. Tanaka just completed year three. Tanaka has also had some other nagging injury issues in recent years.

The market for a starting pitcher with a known elbow problem who was mediocre to bad overall during the 2017 regular season might not be so robust. Tanaka is a boom or bust player at this point, and there’s a lot of bust potential. Even if the elbow stays intact, he showed this year he could get blasted anyway. Passing on the opt-out and taking the $67M guaranteed would be a safe bet.

The Case For Opting Out

Moreso than any other position, quality starting pitchers rarely have trouble getting paid. Jeff Samardzija led the league in hits, earned runs, and home runs allowed a few years ago, yet he still signed a five-year contract worth $90M after the season. Ian Kennedy inked a five-year deal worth $70M two offseasons ago, after he’d thrown 759 innings with a 4.19 ERA (89 ERA+) and a 4.06 FIP over the previous four seasons.

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

Several things make Tanaka desirable despite his poor 2017 regular season and the lingering elbow concerns. One, he has shown he can pitch at a very high level. He did it all of last season and he did it for much of the second half this season, plus again in the postseason, under the spotlight in New York. I would be careful not to overvalue those three postseason starts, but, if nothing else, they were a reminder of what he’s capable of. The ability to dominate still exists.

Two, Tanaka is only 29. He’s actually only 28. His 29th birthday is one week from today. Tanaka is still in what should be the prime of his career. You wouldn’t be signing a guy over 30 who figures to begin succumbing to age-related decline fairly soon. And three, the free agent pitching class isn’t great. Yu Darvish, who had Tommy John surgery two years ago and is now 31, is the headliner. Soon-to-be 32-year-old Jake Arrieta is next, and his command has been deteriorating for two years now.

Should he opt-out, Tanaka likely sits somewhere behind Darvish and Arrieta in the free agent pecking order, and ahead of guys like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Jason Vargas. All three of those dudes are less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, like Darvish. You can nitpick all these guys the same way you can nitpick Tanaka and say he don’t deserve a big contract.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about a soon-to-be 29-year-old pitcher who owns a 3.56 ERA (118 ERA+) and a 3.75 FIP in 668.1 big league innings, all with the Yankees in the hitter friendly AL East, and has shown he won’t wilt under the bright lights in the postseason. That is a mighty valuable commodity. No, Tanaka might not match the $22.3M average annual value of his current contract, but he figures to top the $67M total guarantee on the open market.

* * *

There is, potentially, a third option here. Tanaka could leverage the opt-out into a contract extension with the Yankees. That is exactly what CC Sabathia did a few years ago. I’m inclined to think the Yankees wouldn’t bite and would call Tanaka’s bluff and let him opt-out in that case, though an extension is worth considering. The Yankees need pitching and Tanaka has shown he can be damn good and thrive in New York. That’s not nothing.

The plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold looms, so perhaps there’s a scenario in which the Yankees sign Tanaka to an extension and lower the average annual value (and thus luxury tax hit) of his contract. If the Yankees were to tack on, say, two years and $33M to his current contract, that’s essentially a five-year extension worth $100M, with a $20M luxury tax hit, saving some payroll space. Maybe an extra two years and $27M would be enough to convince Tanaka to stay? Or two years and $23M? It’s worth asking.

At this point, we have all the information. We know how Tanaka pitched this year, how he pitched in the postseason, and how he pitched the last four years. We know his injury history — well, we know what the Yankees have elected to tell us about his injury history — and we know where the Yankees are as a team. They’re ready to win now. They almost won this year! Re-signing Tanaka is a win-now move. Okay, time for a poll.

Will Tanaka opt-out?
View Results

Yankeemetrics: Sweet season, bitter ending (ALCS)

I want to thank everyone for being such great followers, fans and readers during this incredible season. It’s been a wild and crazy ride, and your loyal support has meant so much to me and the rest of the RAB crew. The Chase for 28 begins today. #Lovethisteam

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Trouble in Texas
Riding a huge wave of momentum following their epic comeback against the Indians, the Yankees flat-lined in the ALCS opener, losing 2-1 and digging themselves into an early series hole yet again. They were flummoxed by Dallas Keuchel, who also made a little history along the way:

  • He is the fourth pitcher to hold the Yankees without a run and strike out at least 10 guys in a postseason game, joining Cliff Lee (2010 ALCS), Randy Johnson (2001 World Series) and Pedro Martinez (1999 ALCS)
  • Combined with his 2015 Wild Card Game masterpiece (6 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts), Keuchel is the first pitcher ever to strike out at least seven guys and allow no runs in back-to-back playoff starts against the Yankees

The Yankees wasted their one big scoring opportunity in the fifth inning when Aaron Judge laced a single into left field and Greg Bird was thrown out at home plate trying to score from second. We’ll let Bird explain the play in his own words: “I’m too slow,” Bird told reporters after the game. “Wish I was a little faster. That’s baseball.”

Hard to argue with that analysis. Bird is the second-slowest Yankee according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, ahead of only Chase Headley. Bird tried to make up for his rally-killing blunder with a two-out solo homer in ninth that trimmed the deficit to 2-1. The 399-foot drive was notable because, with the Yankees down to their last out, he saved them from being blanked and produced our first Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series:

The last Yankee to hit a postseason homer with two outs in the ninth to prevent a shutout was … yeah, you guessed it … Scott Brosius in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. Of course, Brosius also had Jorge Posada on second base at the time, and the outcome was much much different.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Deja vu in Texas
More heartbreak, more losses for the Yankees on Saturday as they dropped a second straight excruciating game by the score of 2-1, this time via Carlos Correa’s game-ending double, and put themselves in yet another 0-2 series hole.

It was their second walk-off loss in October, making this only the second postseason in franchise history they’ve dropped two games in walk-off fashion. The other year was 2004.

What makes the two-games-to-nil deficit so crushing – and historic – is the double-whammy effect of losing two close contests while getting outstanding pitching in both matchups. Only one other team in postseason history lost each of its first two games of any series by one run while giving up no more than two runs in each game. In the 1950 World Series, the Phillies lost by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 Games 1 and 2 to the Yankees, who eventually finished them off in a sweep.

They were dominated again by an Astros starter, as Justin Verlander tossed a masterful 13-strikeout complete game while giving up one run. Only four other pitchers have gone the distance while striking out at least 13 Yankees in the postseason: Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax (1963 World Series) and Bob Gibson (1964 World Series), plus Dodgers righthander Carl Erskine in the 1953 World Series.

Combined with Keuchel’s 10-strikeout gem in Game 1, they are the first set of teammates with back-to-back double-digit strikeout games against the Yankees in a playoff series.

One of the few Yankee highlights was Tommy Kahnle‘s brilliant and near-perfect two-inning performance. Coming off his ALDS Game 4 outing when he retired all six batters faced, Kahnle joined Mariano Rivera (1996, 2003) and Goose Gossage (1978) as the only Yankees with back-to-back postseason games of at least two hitless innings pitched.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

Home sweet home
A return to the Bronx was the perfect elixir for the ice-cold Yankee bats, which broke out of their mini-slump in a 8-1 blowout Game 3 win. More importantly, the victory snapped a miserable seven-game losing streak in ALCS contests, which was the second-longest in MLB postseason history, and trailed only a 10-game slide by the Red Sox from 1988-1999.

Todd Frazier ignited the offensive outburst in the second inning when he golfed a 95-mph fastball at his shins into the right-field seats for his first career postseason homer. While it is remarkable that the homer left his bat at 100 mph and went an estimated 365 feet, the fact that it found the seats was nearly as shocking:

Per Statcast data, a batted ball with an exit velocity of 100 mph a and launch angle of 21 degrees produces a homer just six percent of the time. And per Hittrackeronline.net, given weather conditions of 70 degrees and no wind, the hit would have cleared the fences in only one ballpark.

So let’s give Frazier a nice #FunFact shout-out for that improbable blast: he is the first Yankee third baseman to homer with at least two men on base in a postseason game since … Scott Brosius’ three-run, go-ahead homer off Trevor Hoffman in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1998 World Series.

Aaron Judge capped off the offensive fireworks with a screaming liner over the left-field fence in the fourth inning that plated three runs to make it 8-0. The only other time the Yankees hit multiple three-run homers in a postseason game was when Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles each did it in Game 2 of the 1981 ALCS against the A’s.

Perhaps no player on the Yankees has personified their Fighting Spirit more than CC Sabathia, who delivered yet another vintage clutch performance. He tossed six shutout innings – amazingly, his first career scoreless postseason outing – and bolstered his season-long reputation as The Stopper: Sabathia improved to 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts following a Yankee loss in 2017.

At the age of 37, Sabathia has thrived by working the edges of the zone and generating tons of weak contact. Among starters (min. 300 batted balls), no pitcher had a lower opponent average exit velocity than Sabathia (83.9 mph) during the regular season and his soft-contact rate was the fifth-highest (min. 140 IP). He used that formula on Monday, too, with an average exit velocity allowed of 73.7 mph, the lowest by any starter in a postseason game since Statcast began tracking the data in 2015.

With this latest dominant outing, Sabathia also extended his playoff run of stingy pitching in front of the hometown crowd. He has a 1.61 ERA in seven postseason starts at Yankee Stadium, with two earned runs or fewer in each of those games. The only other Yankee pitcher that can match his streak of seven straight postseason starts at home and no more than two earned runs allowed is Whitey Ford.

(AP)
(AP)

Bedlam in the Bronx
The Comeback Kings struck again on Tuesday night as this never-say-die, no-quit team staged yet another stunning late-game rally to beat the Astros 6-4 in a Game 4 thriller. Down 4-0 with nine outs to go? No problem!

This was the Yankees first postseason win in the Bronx when trailing by at least four runs since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. They’ve also made a habit of overcoming big deficits in the postseason, regardless of venue. Since the start of 2009, their five playoff wins when trailing by at least three runs at any point in the game are the most of any team in that span.

The unbelievable comeback wouldn’t have been possible without a dazzling performance on the mound by Sonny Gray. He was charged with two runs (one earned) and held the Astros to one hit before hitting the showers in the sixth, yet he got stuck with a no-decision because the Yankee bats were lifeless through the first six frames. Gray has now thrown 21 1/3 innings in the playoffs over four starts and received exactly zero runs of support while in the game.

Let’s get back to the incredible rally, which was sparked by a solo homer from Aaron Judge in the seventh. He drilled a first-pitch curveball 427 feet into Monument Park, an impressive feat given his struggles against curves this postseason. Since the start of the Division Series and prior to the home run, Judge had seen 57 curveballs, and hit none of them in fair territory. This is how it broke down:

29 called balls
14 called strikes
14 swings
12 whiffs
2 fouls

Judge later added to his growing October Legend with a game-tying double – off a slider! – in the eighth inning. Let’s reward Judge with another #FunFact: He’s the second Yankee age 25 or younger to have consecutive playoff games with at least one homer and two RBI. The other is a fella named Lou Gehrig, who did it in the 1928 World Series.

Finally, Gary Sanchez went from Goat to Hero with one swing of the bat when he smoked a go-ahead double into the right-centerfield gap for a 6-4 lead. Before that clutch hit, Sanchez was 0-for-13 in the series and hitless in his last 18 at-bats, the longest drought without a hit of his major-league career.

El Gary earns our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series for his game-winning heroics. Only three other Yankees have hit a tie-breaking double in the eighth inning or later of a postseason game: Thurman Munson (1977 World Series Game 1), Tino Martinez (1996 ALCS Game 3) and Alex Rodriguez (2009 World Series Game 4).

(NJ.com)
(NJ.com)

Masterful Masahiro
The Yankees continued their magical October run in the Bronx with a drama-free 5-0 win over the Astros in Game 5.

They pummeled ex-Yankee-killer and former postseason ace Dallas Keuchel, who entered the game with the lowest career ERA (1.09) against the Yankees of any pitcher in baseball history (min. 50 IP) and the lowest postseason career ERA (1.69) of any active starter (min. 25 IP). He no longer holds those titles after getting battered on Wednesday by the unstoppable Bronx Bomber bats.

Gary Sanchez led the way with two run-scoring hits, an RBI single in the fifth and a solo blast in the seventh. That homer was his third of the postseason, as he matched two of his fellow Baby Bombers (Greg Bird and Aaron Judge) and Didi Gregorius for the team lead.

The Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have three players age 25 or younger hit at least three home runs in the same postseason. And this is the first postseason in Yankees history they’ve had four players – of any age – with three-plus homers.

Aaron Judge drilled a double down the left-field line in the third inning to score Brett Gardner for his team-leading 10th RBI of the playoffs. He joined a 25-year-old Manny Ramirez in 1997 as the youngest corner outfielders to drive in at least 10 runs within a postseason.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

The true superstar of the game was the Yankees latest ace on the mound, Masahiro Tanaka. He dialed up another gem, blanking the Astros over seven brilliant innings while scattering three hits and striking out eight. Combined with his nearly identical effort in Game 1 of the Division Series, Tanaka joined Roger Clemens (2000) as the only Yankees with multiple starts of at least seven scoreless innings and three hits or fewer allowed in the same postseason.

Tanaka has put together a stellar postseason resume with a 1.44 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in four career starts. Most impressively, he’s given up no more than two runs and no more than four hits in each of those games. The only other pitcher in baseball history that can match Tanaka’s dominance – two or fewer runs and four or fewer hits allowed – in each of his first four postseason starts was Blue Moon Odom for the Oakland A’s in 1972.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Bump in the road
The series headed south for the final two games and the Yankees found themselves in trouble again deep in the heart of Texas.

They lost 7-1 in Game 6, tied for their second-largest loss in a potential clinching game on the road …. and you probably want to forget the largest (a 15-2 blowout in Game 6 of 2001 World Series in Arizona). Making the loss even more miserable was the fact that the Astros were winless in their five previous playoff games at home when facing elimination.

The Astros bats exploded for seven runs on eight hits against the normally tough Yankees pitching staff, which had actually been on an incredible run dating back to the middle of the Division Series. They’d held the Indians and Astros to no more than six hits in eight straight games from ALDS Game 3 through ALCS Game 5, the longest such streak by any team in MLB postseason history.

Still, they could have nearly pitched a perfect game and it wouldn’t have mattered given how dominant Justin Verlander was once again with his team on the brink of a long winter. He tossed seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, racking up a bunch of notable feats:

  • First player in major-league history to pitch three consecutive scoreless starts of seven-plus innings with his team facing postseason elimination.
  • Third straight playoff start against the Yankees giving up no more than one run (dating back to 2012 ALCS Game 3), the only pitcher ever to have a streak like that against the Yankees in October.
  • Combined with his 13-strikeout performance in Game 2, he is the fourth pitcher to strike out at least 20 Yankees in a single postseason series. Bob Gibson (31, 1964 World Series), Curt Schilling (26, 2001 World Series) and Sandy Koufax (23, 1963 World Series) are the others.

Aaron Judge helped the Yankees avoid the embarrassment of getting blanked with a mammoth solo blast in the eight inning, his third homer in the ALCS and fourth of the postseason. His four total dingers set the rookie franchise record for a postseason, while he joined Alex Rodriguez (2009 ALCS) and Hank Bauer (1958 World Series) as the only Yankee right-handed batters to go deep at least three times in a single playoff series.

The game turned into a rout thanks to a rare implosion by David Robertson in the eighth inning. He faced four batters, who went homer-double-single-double before he was pulled. His final line – four runs, four hits, no outs – was ugly and historic: Robertson is the only Yankee ever to cough up at least four runs and four hits while recording zero outs in a postseason game.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

You can’t win them all …
The Yankees magical, rollercoaster season finally came to an end thanks to a 4-0 Game 7 loss on Saturday night in Houston. Their comeback mojo expired, the Fighting Spirit went dry and this never-say-die team was unable to survive another do-or-die game. Still, what the Yankees were trying to accomplish, defying all expectations to make the World Series under the toughest circumstances, would have been such an incredible and rare feat. Consider these odds:

  • Only two teams have ever defeated 100-win teams in both the Division Series and League Championship Series (2001 Yankees and 1998 Padres)
  • The Yankees were the fifth team to play the maximum number games in the LDS and LCS in the Wild Card era — only one of those five were able to win both series (2012 Giants)
  • Only two teams have ever comeback from multiple 0-2 series deficits in the same postseason (1981 Dodgers, 1985 Royals), and neither of those teams faced two 100-win teams, which was the unprecedented task facing the Yankees

Ultimately, the Yankees inexplicable road/home splits sealed their fate this postseason. Saturday’s blanking was the second time they were shut out in the playoffs — the other was Game 1 of the ALDS in Cleveland — making this the first postseason in franchise history they suffered two shutouts on the road. They were held to one run or fewer for the fourth straight road game, tied for the second-longest such streak in MLB postseason history, trailing only the Brooklyn Dodgers’ six-gamer from 1916-20.

The Yankees somehow finished 1-6 on the road while going a perfect 6-0 at home in the playoffs. They are the fourth team ever to complete a postseason with a 6-0 or better record at home. That’s good! The other three clubs (2008 Phillies, 1999 Yankees, 1987 Twins) each won the World Series. That’s … less than good.

Regardless of the bittersweet ending, this season was so so much better than good.

After a rough regular season, Masahiro Tanaka has become the postseason ace the Yankees need

(Getty)
(Getty)

Four years ago the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka hoping he would do what he is doing right now. They signed him expecting him to be an impact pitcher, especially in the postseason, one who would help the Yankees get to the World Series. The Yankees aren’t in the World Series yet, but they’re a win away, and Tanaka is a very big reason why.

Last night, in Game Five of the ALCS, Tanaka held the Astros to three hits and one walk in seven scoreless innings. He struck out seven and allowed only eight of the 26 batters he faced to hit the ball out of the infield. It was a dominant performance against a very good offense. An ace-like performance through and through.

“He was special again. You look at his three starts in the playoffs, they’ve been special,” said Joe Girardi after last night’s game. “He wins the one game 1-0, I believe, the first start. His two starts here have been really good. And we needed it. This was a big game for us.”

So far this postseason Tanaka has indeed made three starts — one against the Indians and two against the Astros. His start against the Indians was an elimination game, remember. Tanaka’s line in those three starts: 20 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 2 R, 3 BB, 18 K. He’s thrown only 90 of his 284 total pitches from the stretch. Only 32% of his pitches have come with a man on base. That is nuts.

Tanaka, of course, was the last starter the Yankees used this postseason. Luis Severino got the ball in the Wild Card Game because he deserved the ball in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees pushed Tanaka back to Game Three of the ALDS not only because his home/road split is drastic, but because he was the worst of the team’s four postseason starters during the regular season.

During the regular season Tanaka threw 178.1 innings and ranked 50th in ERA (4.74) and 36th in FIP (4.34) among the 58 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His +1.0 WAR put him on par with guys like Ariel Miranda (+1.0 WAR) and Austin Bibens-Dirkx (+0.9 WAR). Only three pitchers allowed more home runs in 2017.

Tanaka did pitch better in the final three months of the regular season, though he was still prone to the occasional blowout, and it was enough for the Yankees to start three pitchers before him in the postseason. Now, three starts later, Tanaka has been the team’s best pitcher in the playoffs and it’s not close. He’s been that good so far.

“All I’m trying to do out there is just try to do my best and that’s pretty much it,” said Tanaka following last night’s game, through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m just keeping it really simple. You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank. I think I’m just really clear of what I need to do out there and I’m just executing that.”

Going from the contract signing in 2014 to postseason ace in 2017 has been a bumpy road. There’s no doubt about that. The Elbow™ still hangs over every pitch he throws. There have been some other injuries along the way, plus a lot of home runs and more than a few dud starts. Tanaka has been intermittently fantastic and terrible the last four years.

What happened in the past doesn’t matter though. Right now Tanaka is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his Yankees career. I truly believe that. This stretch is on par with the first half of 2014. Tanaka is fearless on the mound. The guy seems unflappable. And right now, he’s giving the Yankees exactly what they expected when they signed him. He’s the No. 1 starter on a title contender.