Can you believe that Masahiro Tanaka has been with the Yankees for five seasons already? Only Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia, Dellin Betances and Austin Romine have been on the roster longer than the Yankees’ stud right-hander. Tanaka just completed his age-29 season and has just two years left on his seven-year, $155 million contract. While the Tanaka of today is not the same pitcher that he was when he came over, he still gets by with his deceptive mechanics and smart strategy, an approach that will continue to help him as he enters his 30s.
2018 statistics: 27 GS, 12-6 record, 156.0 innings, 159 K, 3.75 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 1.13 WHIP, 9.17 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, 8.12 H/9, 1.44 HR/9
2019 contract status: Under contract through 2020
Though Tanaka may no longer be the ace of the staff, a title many have passed on to Luis Severino, Tanaka had a pretty solid 2018 campaign that resembled a bounceback year after an inconsistent 2017 season. Tanaka was his typical self in 2018: he struck out over a batter per inning, walked few, was dogged by the home run ball at times, and missed a month on the disabled list. He put up a 12-6 record and 3.75 ERA that were right in line with what was to be reasonably expected from him.
Tanaka’s starts this year often went one of two ways: either he had his “A” stuff, or he didn’t. Through it all, Tanaka only lost six games and has only lost 34 through five years—he has an amazing ability to minimize damage. Likewise, Tanaka’s strand rate was a solid 77.7 percent, the second-highest of his career. Even on nights when Tanaka didn’t have his best stuff, it wasn’t unusual to see him put up five to six innings of three-run, seven-strikeout baseball and give his team a chance to win.
And when Tanaka did have his quality stuff, he still proved capable of being an ace. He allowed zero or one run in 12 of his 27 starts (44.4%), and only allowed five or more runs in four starts (14.8%). Highlights included his complete game shutout in July over the Rays, a 10-strikeout, eight-inning masterpiece over the Mariners in September, and his gem against the Red Sox in the ALDS that helped the Yankees get their only win of that series.
Tanaka’s best attribute has always been his steady diet of breaking balls mixed with timely usage of his fastball. However, Tanaka went all-in on the offspeed pitches this year, only throwing his heater 26.2 percent of the time. This helped make his fastball stand out and play up a little bit, and his mix of sliders, splitters, cutters and curves kept hitters on their toes for the other 75 percent of the time. When a batter steps in the box against Masahiro Tanaka, he never knows what pitch is coming next.
Where would this team be without him? Tanaka provides veteran presence and above-average mid-rotation production. He is the Yankees’ most clutch pitcher in the big moments, and has been worth the sizable investment it took to get him on the team five years ago in the first place. His peaks aren’t quite what they were in his early days, but Tanaka has entered the next phase of his career—the “crafty veteran” phase—quite gracefully. If you’re going to a Yankees game and Tanaka’s on the mound, you can generally feel pretty good about things.