Before the season, it seemed fairly clear that Masahiro Tanaka would opt out of the final three years of his contract with the Yankees. Why wouldn't he? Coming off a superlative 2016 season, Tanaka was just 28, in his prime, and had pitched like a front-line starter. Sure, the elbow issues he experienced in the past might be troubling, but he looked like a near-lock to surpass the $67 million he is currently guaranteed from 2018 to 2020.
Yet here we are. Tanaka's struggles have been puzzling, but most importantly, they've significantly harmed both his and his team's prospects. With a total of -0.7 rWAR, he's produced roughly two fewer wins than he would've been expected to, and he's thrown his own ability to secure another huge contract into considerable doubt.
Surely some observers doubt that there's any chance Tanaka opts out. There's still a possibility, but is it at all likely? Let's break down the various ways Tanaka's season could play out from here, and evaluate the chances he opts in or out based on those different scenarios.
Scenario 1: Tanaka is injured
The Yankees insist Tanaka is healthy, and in truth, the way Tanaka has pitched should mostly lead us to believe them. His results have been admittedly nightmarish, but his velocity has actually ticked up about one mph per Brooks Baseball. One of the simplest ways to spot a pitcher who's not right physically is a significant drop in velocity, but Tanaka has actually gone in the opposite direction.
Still, that doesn't mean that he's definitely not injured, even if throwing harder makes it less likely. If it came out that Tanaka has been dealing with some sort of ailment and subsequently missed significant time, the consequences would seem straightforward. Perhaps if Tanaka was hurt and he managed to rehab, return, and pitch effectively, he would boost his stock. More likely, added injury concerns would nullify any chance Tanaka hits the open market this year.
Scenario 2: Tanaka goes on DL with a phantom injury
It's debatable whether this scenario would look better or worse for Tanaka. On one hand, it's better to have a healthy pitcher than a non-healthy one. On the other, a situation in which there's no physical ailment causing Tanaka's struggles is unflattering to the pitcher, as it suggests his own abilities are the sole reason for his struggles.
Again, in this scenario, Tanaka just can’t opt out. If Tanaka ends up on the DL for any reason, spurious or not, it's hard to imagine teams wanting to beat the three years already guaranteed to him.
Scenario 3: Tanaka continues to pitch awfully
This seems like it should be the least likely scenario, but then again, it seemed unlikely that Tanaka would pitch this poorly in the first place. Regardless, as hard as it might be to envision things turning around for Tanaka, he shouldn't be this bad forever.
If he is, well, the Yankees will be stuck paying $22 million a year to a player coming off a well below replacement level season at age-28. It's hard to imagine Tanaka will post 30 starts like this, or that he'd even be allowed to, but he'd obviously be happy to take his current contract under this scenario.
Scenario 4: Tanaka regresses and pitches as an above average starer
This scenario is probably the one that feels most intuitive to the sabermetrics community. Clearly something is off about Tanaka right now, but as Joe Girardi has stated, he doesn't believe that one can "just forget how to pitch". Baseball history tells us that outrageous data points are just that — outrageous. In most cases, we should expect regression to the mean to pull things in line.
Is Tanaka one of those cases? It’s hard to say when his ERA sits well above six. If he's not hurt, though, it's possible that he will turn things around. As previously mentioned, he's throwing harder, and still possesses a deep arsenal. He obviously hasn't dominated so far, and there's no guarantee he will suddenly begin to do so, but his past track record indicates it's plausible.
If Tanaka pitched pretty well from here with, say, a 3.50 ERA and ended up with around 2 WAR on the season...he still probably doesn't opt out. The odds are at least higher, though.
Scenario 5: Tanaka returns to being great
Just last season, Tanaka maintained a 3.07 ERA across 199.2 innings. He held batters to a .236/.272/.645 line, while pitching in a harrowing ballpark in baseball’s toughest division. Is it ridiculous to expect that level of performance from Tanaka again sometime soon? Probably.
Last year may have been Tanaka's finest season, and expecting him to revert to that kind of performance in the midst of an awful year is foolhardy. I will simply note that it’s within the realm of possibility. If we live in a world where the Cavaliers and Cubs can overcome 3-1 championship deficits, where the Patriots can win the Super Bowl after being down 28-3, then we live in a world where Tanaka can pitch like his old self. If, somehow, he suddenly throws 135 innings of ace-level ball from here on out, an opt out seems more likely than not.
This analysis misses some other possible scenarios, such as one in which Tanaka is average to below average, or the possibility that these scenarios converge, such as if Tanaka pitches like an ace for a month or two, before regressing back to his current level of play. This is meant to be a simplified look at the different ways his season could play out, and one thing is clear: most of the scenarios involve Tanaka not opting out, which would have seemed crazy just a few months ago.
It's never good to overreact to two months of results, but it's not an overreaction to say that it's unlikely any teams will value Tanaka at more than three years, $67 million after this year. In order to convince the league he's a starter whose age-32 and age-33 seasons are worth paying a premium for, Tanaka has to establish that he is a well above-average pitcher right now. He hasn’t done that, and he just might need to if the Yankees want to hold on to their slim division lead for much longer.