Can Masahiro Tanaka Be a True #1 Starter?

Is the Yankees’ ace, really an ace?

The  pitching staffs  in  New York are a tale of two cities. It is the best of starting rotations, it is the worst of starting rotations. It is the era of a three-headed bullpen monster, it is the era of a forever suspended closer.

The bullpen in the Bronx is a thing of beauty. In fact, it’s so good, it can alleviate some of the problems the starting rotation brings. But one thing it can’t fix is the thing the Mets have an abundance of, the Yankees’ seeming lack of an ace.

But maybe, just maybe, Yankee fans hope, deep down in their hearts, that Masahiro Tanaka could truly be that number one option. The Yankees spent an awful lot of money for the  righthander back in 2014, signing him to a $152 million contract on top of a $20 million posting fee to bring him over from Japan.

And what has all that money bought them so far? Let’s take a quick look at his stats via BaseballReference.com 

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He was very good in his rookie year, earning some ROY votes and an all-star nod. An ERA under 3 is good for any rookie pitcher, whether or not he pitched professionally before, and he was averaging just more than a strikeout per inning. The problem you can start to see develop is his number of starts , just 20 in 2014, more than 10 less than many of the league leaders.

He started a few more games in 2015, but arguably performed worse. He had a much higher ERA and he struck fewer batters out while he gave up more home runs per 9 innings, though his WHIP did drop slightly. But again, he trailed the leaders in starts by double digits.

Tanaka has  shown signs of progress this year, and Yankee fans can feel somewhat hopeful about that. His strikeout rate is still low, though he’s done a good job of reigning  in the long ball. He hasn’t lost a start yet and his ERA is under three, so he’s pitched very well this season.

But for me, the thing that looms over all of his early season success are the injuries. He’s missed significant chunks of time in both of his first two seasons in the major leagues. I don’t expect much from the Yankees this season, but it will be hard for them to get anywhere if they miss multiple starts in a row from Tanaka.

Unfortunately, even when he is healthy, I don’t think Tanaka is your true ace, the silver bullet in a manager’s rotation that he trusts to get through a must-win situation. You certainly wouldn’t want to start him on light rest unless the situation was absolutely dire, which already impacts his value come the end of the season and the playoffs.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog about the Yankees, they have a bit of a rebuilding period ahead. And while I know a lot of popular though says the Yankees will eventually break up the bullpen and trade Chapman’s expiring contract by July. I wouldn’t be so fast to do so, as I think having that kind of bullpen can erase some of the Yankees’ problems at the bottom of the rotation (I’m looking at you Michael Pineda and Luis Severino. You’ve avoided most of my scorn so far, but that won’t last long.)

But if they do decide to break up the big three, they should only do it for a true ace. If the Yankees hope to return to their days of dominance, they are going to need one.

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3 thoughts on “Can Masahiro Tanaka Be a True #1 Starter?

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