The Yankees had a surprising season in 2017. After all, they made it to within one game of the World Series. Who saw that coming? The team’s success stemmed from a number of reasons, one of which being quality starting pitching. During the regular season, the team posted a 3.98 ERA, good for seventh best in all of baseball. That’s a big drop from the 4.44 ERA owned by the Bombers in 2016.
To commemorate the successful year, I thought it would be fun to count down the five best starts of the year. I’m using game score as my guide. Here’s a short refresher on how the metric works. Game score isn’t perfect, but for this countdown it works just fine. Now, what does it have to say about the Yankees’ pitching performances?
The Yankees wasted little time in showing off their power pitching. Michael Pineda flirted with a perfect game during the team’s home opener. That’s no exaggeration, either. Pineda retired the first 20 batters before allowing a hit, a double off the bat of Evan Longoria. I remember agonizing over every at-bat. Heading into the eighth inning, I thought he was actually going to do it. Longoria was the pivotal batter, and getting him out very well could have secured perfection. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Pineda never reached this level of success in pinstripes again. He pitched to a 4.39 ERA (4.66 FIP) across 96.1 innings before requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. The right-hander is scheduled to hit free agency, and I have a hard time envisioning the Yankees bringing him back. It’s been a wild ride on the Pineda roller coaster, with one of the highest points coming in April.
Masahiro Tanaka had a rough year in 2017. That said, he managed to step up and pitch some of the best games of the season. One of these took place in late June against the Rangers. Tanaka drew Yu Darvish for an old fashioned pitchers’ duel, and he delivered.
The crafty right-hander registered 10 strikeouts on the night, trading blank frames with Darvish. Although known for his splitter, Tanaka excelled in particular with his fastball. He made the Rangers chase a high, four-seamer that sat at about 94 mph. It looked like their lineup had no answer for him. As it turns out, that’s a theme for the rest of the list.
Ah, yes, who could forget the time Tanaka outdueled Chris Sale? Heading into the season, many made a big deal about Sale’s prior dominance of the Bombers. In their first matchup of the year, though, the Yankees’ lineup beat him. Plus, Tanaka tossed a Maddux. Go figure.
What stands out here is the way Tanaka carved up the Red Sox. He sacrificed the strikeout for groundballs. In fact, he picked up 15 outs on the ground. Tanaka generated a ton of weak contact and that kept his pitch count down, allowing him to go the distance. This was a big bright spot in an otherwise tough first half for the right-hander.
The previous entry saw Tanaka only register three strikeouts. This one features him setting a career high 15 strikeouts in a single game. He can beat a team in so many different ways it’s kind of ridiculous.
In this particular game, Tanaka had a perfect feel for his splitter. The Blue Jays’ lineup, although admittedly weak, swung right over it. The bottom just fell out with the pitch. Coming towards the end of the season, some wondered if this would be Tanka’s final start with the Yankees. Thankfully we were treated to a masterful postseason where he pitched 20 innings of two-run ball. In many ways, this outing served as a precursor to his dominant playoff run.
There’s some weird symmetry in this line. It began with a near perfect game against the Rays for the number five spot. It concludes with a near perfect game against the Rays. Freaky. Instead of Pineda, however, the honors belong to Tanaka. I wasn’t kidding when I said he would feature prominently for the rest of the list.
Tanaka retired the first 17 batters and he had all of his pitches working. Part of the success stems from his ability to work at the bottom of the zone.
He struck out 14 batters, with the only damage coming in the form of a Lucas Duda solo home run. The Yankees paid Tanaka anchor the rotation, and while he struggled at times, games like these remind everyone of how special he is.
Do you agree with the list game score suggests? Or do you have other starts in mind? Let us know in the comments below.