#HotTake: Masahiro Tanaka has been really good. (Bold, I know.) Tanaka has been so good in fact that even though the Yankees are doing relatively well right now, his starts are far and a way the most enticing to watch these days. One of the reasons it's like this is because the rest of the starting rotation is not pretty, to say the least.
In the early goings, Tanaka, has a 2.17 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and a 188 ERA+ in eight starts. Meanwhile, none of the other three pitchers who have made at least five starts (Hiroki Kuroda, Vidal Nuno, and the now-injured CC Sabathia) have an ERA+ above 90. Ivan Nova was dreadful in his four starts before going down with Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda was great early on but has since gotten hurt and it is unclear when he will return. There are some nice very small sample size starting numbers from David Phelps and Chase Whitley, but it is very unclear how long that will last.
Basically, Tanaka has become to the Yankees what Felix Hernandez was to the Mariners before the arrival of Hisashi Iwakuma. Mariners fans called Felix starts "Felix Day," in part because it marked the only must-see games from the team. The Yankees obviously have a better team than those Mariners clubs, but as far as the rotation goes, "Tanaka Time" is currently quite similar to "Felix Day."
The idea of one pitcher in the starting rotation excelling while the rest were underwhelming in comparison got me wondering about other times in Yankees history when that has been the case. So with the help of the invaluable Baseball-Reference Play Index, I tracked down the starters in Yankees history who had an ERA+ of at least 50 points better than the second-best pitcher in the rotation. The results:
|NYY pitchers, led staff in ERA+ by min. 50 points|
Those even slightly familiar with Yankees history should not be surprised to see these names on the list, and it's quite an honor for Tanaka to be compared to such greats.
Guidry posted the best season by a starter in Yankees history in '78, when he absolutely dominated the American League with a league-best 1.74 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 208 ERA+, 9.6 rWAR, 0.946 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, nine shutouts, and for those who fancy it, a 25-3 record. "Louisiana Lightning" set a franchise record with 18 strikeouts in one game. He was the unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award, and even finished runner-up for the AL MVP to Boston's Jim Rice. A pitcher winning the MVP is kind of an odd concept, but given that some pitchers have indeed won the award, it's hard to say Guidry didn't deserve it given his complete steamroll of the AL and Rice's comparatively lesser performance (7.6 rWAR at the plate). The funny thing about Guidry's rotation dominance that year was that the Yankees had a World Series champion that year! It's not as though Ed Figueroa (122 ERA+) and Catfish Hunter (102 ERA+) were slouches--Guidry was just far and away the best on the staff.
Ford is still probably the best pitcher the Yankees have ever had, and three times, he had an ERA+ of at least 50 points better than the rest of the rotation. Again, like Guidry, Ford's marks were superb, but two of these teams won the World Series and the '64 club won the AL pennant. The Hall of Famer didn't have bad contemporaries--the runners-up each year were Don Larsen (119 ERA+ in '56), Bob Turley (119 ERA+ in '58), and Jim Bouton (120 ERA+ in '64). Amusingly, the '58 AL Cy Young Award went to Turley despite his inferior numbers because he had 21 wins to Ford's 14. Silly. "The Chairman of the Board." was the obvious staff ace.
Chandler's remarkable '43 campaign occurred under unusual conditions, as many AL rivals like Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams were off to war. Nonetheless, Chandler was in a league of his own in '43, thoroughly neutralizing all opposing hitters. He led the AL in ERA (1.64), FIP (2.30), ERA+ (198), rWAR (6.5), WHIP (0.992), complete games (20), shutouts (5), and again, for those who fancy it, a 20-4 record. In the pre-Cy Young Award days, Chandler was voted the AL MVP, the only Yankees pitcher to ever receive the honor. The Yankees went to their third straight World Series and avenged their '42 loss to the Cardinals with a five-game victory. They had outstanding pitching all year from other sources, like Tiny Bonham (142 ERA+), Butch Wensloff (127 ERA+), and Hank Borowy (115 ERA+), so again, it's not like Chandler was alone.
Hall of Famer "Goofy" Gomez was a prankster in the clubhouse, but he was all business on the mound. The '34 season was one of the best in his career, as he won the pitching Triple Crown for the first of two times by leading the AL in wins (26), ERA (2.33), and strikeouts (158). He also led in ERA+ (176), WHIP (1.133), rWAR (8.2), complete games (25), shutouts (6), and innings pitched (281 2/3). The Yankees finished seven games behind the 101-win Tigers for the AL pennant, a finish that perhaps could have been avoided if the rest of the rotation pitched a little better. For what it's worth, the Yankees did lead the AL in ERA at 3.76, but that was mostly due to Gomez. "Fireman" Johnny Murphy had a 131 ERA+ but only made 20 starts--the other half of his appearances came out of the bullpen, where he was a better pitcher. After that, Gomez's main complements were Red Ruffing, a Hall of Famer who had a bit of an off-year with a 104 ERA+, and Johnny Broaca, who had a 99 ERA+. To put it another way, the rest of the rotation had a 4.17 ERA compared to Gomez's 2.33. The writers agreed with Gomez's dominance and even gave him more AL MVP votes than his 10-WAR, hitting Triple Crown-winning teammate, Lou Gehrig. Gomez was third in the voting and Gehrig was fifth, as they both finished behind Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane. Weird.
Gomez's '31 season was not quite as dominant and he made seven fewer starts than in '34, but the 22-year-old's 150 ERA+ was still the best on the team. Although 14 of those appearances were out of the bullpen, he still had a 2.90 ERA in 26 starts, a mark far better than the AL average that year of 4.38. Only two other pitchers posted an ERA+ over 100, and since neither George Pipgras or Gordon Rhodes started more than 15 games, they were not counted in this query. Ruffing, Herb Pennock, and Hank Johnson all made at least 20 starts, and none pitched to an ERA+ better than 95. It's worth noting that the Philadelphia Athletics were in the middle of their dynasty teams and won the AL pennant with 107 victories, 13 1/2 games better than the second-place Yankees, so maybe improved performances from the rest of the rotation wouldn't have helped them win the pennant anyway. Regardless, Gomez stood alone in excellence.
Ideally, Tanaka's teammates will pick up the slack and make his numbers more comparable to the championship teams where one pitcher was ridiculous (a la Ford) while the rest of the rotation stayed strong. In the meantime, #TanakaTime will still remain a must-see event, as the Yankees' new ace tries to make history with hopefully the most dominant pitching season since Guidry.