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.