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Could Masahiro Tanaka win the AL Cy Young award?

In a year where there is no clear favorite, could the Yankees’ ace snag the Cy Young?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Over the past week or so, the collective baseball community seemed to become aware of the mess that is the AL Cy Young race. Usual suspects like David Price, Chris Sale, and the like haven’t been quite as dominant this year, leaving the race without anything even resembling a front-runner. It has gotten to the point that a reliever, Baltimore’s Zach Britton, could feasibly win the award (and it might not be that crazy).

The list of names that have a shot runs the gamut from veteran workhorses to surprise aces: Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, Steven Wright, Danny Duffy, Michael Fulmer, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and more have all have legitimate cases. At this point, the Yankees might even have a contender on their roster for the first time since CC Sabathia’s heyday, in the form of Masahiro Tanaka.

Could Tanaka win the award? It’s a long shot, but in a race this muddled, the entire field pretty much consists of long shots. Maybe there’s a way that this contest shakes out in favor of the Yankees’ ace.

There’s no set way to pick a Cy Young winner. The award could go to whomever the electorate deems to be the most valuable pitcher, the pitcher with the lowest ERA, the most dominant pitcher, or something else entirely. However, there are a few straightforward frameworks through which to view the award race. Let’s start with the simplest one:

The Run Prevention Case

Tanaka’s case doesn’t appear as strong if pitchers are solely evaluated by how well they have prevented runs from scoring. By Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Tanaka ranks just 10th in the American League. B-Ref’s WAR focuses mainly on how many runs a pitcher allows per nine innings, and Tanaka’s RA9 figure of 3.63 is good, but not Cy worthy.

There are just too many pitchers who have been stingier as far as preventing runs. Hamels leads the AL with 5.2 rWAR, on the strength of a 163 ERA+. Jose Quintana also has a strong run prevention case, with a 143 ERA+ in 164.2 innings. Rookie Michael Fulmer might be disqualified by his relatively paltry innings total, but he sports the lowest ERA in the league at 2.58 (sorry Mets fans). If the criteria is allowing runs at the lowest rate, Tanaka has virtually no shot at Cy Young.

The Per-Plate Appearance Case

This is where things get a bit more interesting for Tanaka. If we look at each pitcher on a plate appearance by plate appearance basis, Tanaka’s case starts to seem much more plausible.

Opposing hitters have posted just a .236/.270/.359 slash line against Tanaka this year. The resulting OPS of .629 ranks as the sixth lowest in the AL among starters. Two of the five in front of Tanaka are Fulmer and Estrada, whose lower innings totals might place them behind Tanaka as far as the award race is concerned. The other three, Wright, Corey Kluber, and Sale, all have opposing OPS’s below .620.

It’s not easy to see how Tanaka’s OPS allowed of .629 could trump, say, Kluber’s .618 figure, but it’s possible. Both Tanaka and Kluber pitch in hitter-friendly environments, but Tanaka has had to pitch in front of a defense that has consistently ranked among the league’s worst by defensive metrics, while Kluber has pitched in front of quality defense in Cleveland.

So, strictly looking at how he does during every plate appearance, it does seem like Tanaka has a case. Hitters have a pitiful line against him this year, despite getting to face Tanaka in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium and with a poor defense behind him.

The Fielding Independent Case

This is probably the most controversial way to view pitchers, and it also happens to be the most flattering for Tanaka. By fWAR, which is based on FIP, Tanaka ranks second in the AL. He trails Kluber by just 4.4 to 4.2, an inconsequential amount as far as WAR is concerned.

It’s not hard to see why Tanaka would look so strong on a fielding independent basis. His success this year has, in part, been propelled by a superb ratio of 137 strikeouts to 27 walks. His 5.07 K/BB ratio is second only to Josh Tomlin, who isn’t exactly a favorite in the Cy Young race.

Looking at Tanaka from a fielding independent viewpoint also strips out whatever penalties he suffers from having to pitch in front of a below-average defense. The fly in the ointment with regards to this line of inquiry is that the other pitchers that rate similarly well might look better than Tanaka from other vantage points. Tanaka has a nearly identical fWAR figure as Sale and Quintana, for example, but both Sale and Quintana have ERA’s lower than Tanaka’s 3.24 mark.

On the whole, the race is obviously completely jumbled. Pitchers that look great from one point of view don’t look as strong from another. The ERA leader, Fulmer, is a rookie who hasn’t pitched enough. The contention for the award is in just enough disarray that if you squint, you can see an avenue for Tanaka to win it. If no one has a clear case, then why can’t he win it?

While it is possible, it is clearly very unlikely. Tanaka may look excellent based on his fielding independent numbers, but the most basic goal of pitching is to not allow runs. Other pitchers have simply been better at that than Tanaka this year, and that handicaps him severely in the race. If Cy Young voters are going to focus–understandably–on how well each pitcher prevents runs from scoring, then Tanaka’s hopes for a surprise award will remain slim.