While it's still early in the season, talk has already started about potential candidates for various awards in baseball. From MVP to Cy Young to Rookie of the Year.
Masahiro Tanaka (Ma-Kun, as some refer to him), has led the Yankees starting rotation in 2014, at the age of 25. In his 13 starts, he co-leads the AL with 10 wins (against 1 loss and 2 no-decisions), sporting an ERA of 2.02, a WHIP of 0.940 and 2 complete games (also AL leading, tied for CG with Mark Buehrle). In advanced metrics, he's sporting a 201 ERA+ (again tied with Buehrle), an ERA- of 50, a FIP of 2.65, and an xFIP of 2.36. He's done all this while averaging 7.1 IP per start (never less than 6 IP), and posting 103 strikeouts to 14 walks on the season. In terms of value, he's accumulated 2.8 fWAR/3.8rWAR thus far.
In his one loss and two no-decisions, he kept opponents to his usual 2-3 runs allowed, but the offense either didn't show up or showed up late (and/or the bullpen let the opponent run away with the game).
He has been the most reliable pitcher in the rotation, while reaching some phenomenal milestones (being the fifth pitcher to record at least 100 strikeouts in his first 13 games).
Normally, I would reserve the MVP for a position player, since a starting pitcher only plays in 25-35 games in a season (relief pitchers in more but usually less than 100 games). When Justin Verlander won the MVP in 2011, I wasn't a fan of it because there were position players having monster offensive seasons, among whom was teammate Miguel Cabrera and standouts Jacoby Ellsbury (Red Sox, ew) and Jose Bautista. Save the pitchers for the Cy Young only, please. But not this year.
This year, regardless of my Yankee fandom, Tanaka has been one of two consistent players on the 2014 Yankees squad. Although Yangervis Solarte has been a standout himself, he hasn't brought the kind of offense that would garner him MVP attention (even though he's been the most consistent hitter on the team, he's not been a league leader in any offensive category). Tanaka, however, has taken the league by storm, as evidence by the statistics previously mentioned.
Has there been any player on any other AL team that's been as valuable to his team? Even Mike Trout with his AL leading 3.9 WAR is accompanied on the Angels by Josh Hamilton and his AL tied-for-fourth 161 wRC+. Jose Bautista, with his AL leading 172 wRC+, plays alongside Edwin Encarnacion (and his 155 wRC+) and Mark Buehrle, who makes his own case for Cy Young with a 10-2 record and 2.02 ERA (though his FIP and xFIP are 1 to 2 runs higher).
In comparison, Tanaka's supporting cast in this conversation is Yangervis Solarte, who is nowhere near the other players mentioned (Encarnacion, Hamilton, etc.). He might be a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he's not in the top 10 of all of the AL on offense. You might mention Mark Teixeira, but as much as he's done for the Yankees, he's also not close to the other players mentioned.
I would vote for Masahiro Tanaka to win the AL MVP for 2014 if he keeps his performance up (he might even set some records by the end of the season).
Caveat: I base this on my interpretation of "most valuable to the team" not "best player in baseball." If it was "best player in baseball" my vote would go to the player with the highest WAR at the end of the season, usually a position player with an awesome offensive season. 2011, I think, was an exception where Verlander's season was so good that his WAR was higher than any other player, including position players. 2012, however, saw Trout lose to Miguel Cabrera because of "triple crown" even though Trout had a higher war by about 2 points and a better overall season (factoring defense and baserunning into WAR helps his case as the better complete player, even if his offensive numbers were slighty lower than Cabrera's).
This one is easy, as he leads, or is among the leaders in, the American League in several traditional and advanced pitching metrics (wins, WHIP, ERA, xFIP) and is second in ERA+ and third in fWAR and rWAR for pitchers.
The players who provide the closest competition are:
Mark Buehrle, who sports a 10-2 record and also has a 2.02 ERA, but his FIP is 3.26 and xFIP is 4.17. He's not really pitching as well as his record and ERA reflect, but traditional voters might not care (they probably won't even look at advanced metrics). He also happens to be on the first place Blue Jays. If they make the playoffs, there's no doubt that will factor into the minds of some voters.
Felix Hernandez, who sports an 8-1 record (impressive considering he's on the Mariners) and an ERA of 2.39, along with a league leading 1.93 FIP and 2.41 xFIP. If he keeps it up, he would be some serious competition for Ma-Kun, as his ERA and xFIP are not that far off from Tanaka's. King Felix has won the Cy Young before by impressing voters with phenomenal peripherals and making them ignore a lackluster win-loss record (as they should). Hernandez also leads the AL pitchers with a 3.7 fWAR.
Yu Darvish is making his own case, holding a 7-2 record for the lackluster Rangers. He posts a league leading 10.652 K/9 rate along with an ERA of 2.11, FIP of 2.50, and xFIP of 3.16. He also leads AL pitchers with an impressive LOB% of 85.7%.
There are several other pitchers in a close pack after these three (really, I shouldn't have mentioned Buerhle, but he's tied with Tanaka for several stats and, like I said, traditional voters wouldn't ignore his W-L record). I won't discuss those pitchers, mostly because it would be too painful and disgusting to talk about a guy in Minnesota (who used to play for the Yankees) with a 7-2 record and is in the top 10 in far too many pitching categories.
Rookie of the Year
This is where things get murky. Among rookie pitchers, Ma-Kun is far and away the leader of the pack (especially as far as starters go). His closest competition is teammate (and reliever) Dellin Betances with his insane strikeout rates and pure all around dominance as a reliever.
The competition really comes in the form of position players. Notably, the White Sox' Jose Abreu and Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, along with teammate Yangervis Solarte (who has a higher wRC+ than Bogaerts).
Abreu has accumulated a triple slash (plus OPS and OPS+) of .270/.323/.627/.950/156 along with a wOBA of .400 and 153 wRC+ and an fWAR of 2.0. He leads AL rookies with 19 HR, 50 RBI, and an ISO of .358.
Bogaerts has posted a triple slash (plus OPS/OPS+) of .278/.367/.422/.789/118 with a wOBA of .352, wRC+ of 120 and a 1.7 fWAR.
Solarte has posted a line of .288/.360/.442/.802/122, wOBA of .354, wRC+ of 123, and fWAR of 1.3.
Right now, it would be hard to decide between Tanaka and Abreu, as they're both leading the way in the respective categories. Yankee bias would suggest Tanaka, but would a split-award be an option? I've heard it said that the White Sox went 8-6 (winning record) while Abreu was shut down with an injury. That might be more of a contributing factor for an MVP discussion, but for rookies, it should be best all-around performance, not value to the team.
Obviously, there is plenty of baseball left to play (only 64 games completed for the Yankees, with 98 games left), so all these numbers will most likely change by the end of the season, especially as the All Star break passes and the dog days of summer set in. As of right now, though, Masahiro Tanaka can make a good case to sweep the major awards this season as an MVP, Cy Young winner, and Rookie of the Year (even if it's split).
While I realize this is not a comprehensive list of candidates, comparing Tanaka to the current top performers in every category was a fun exercise. I will revisit this and re-evaluate my opinion in September, as I'm certain that certain candidates will inevitably fall out of the pack at some point in the season. It's worth noting, though, that the candidates mentioned have track records for consistent, season-long play. Tanaka is the untested one in this grouping of players.