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Masahiro Tanaka is making his case to start the wild-card game

After a stellar performance in Seattle, Masahiro Tanaka is making a claim to start for the Yankees in a one-game playoff.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Yankees have fallen into a bit of a rut lately. A disappointing week against lowly teams like the Tigers and White Sox gave way to a poor series in Oakland. The rotation looked uneven, with Lance Lynn regressing, CC Sabathia getting hit around, and Luis Severino’s ace form nowhere to be found.

That made Masahiro Tanaka’s start on Friday appear that much more crucial. In truth, every game from here on out isn’t actually that vital to the Yankees. They’re stuck in no-man’s land, between the division lead and the second wild card, and thus the leverage of each game just isn’t that high. Even so, with the starting staff scuffling, when Tanaka stepped up and twirled a gem in Seattle, it felt important.

Tanaka had perhaps his finest start of the season, silencing the Mariners’ bats across eight spotless innings. He yielded just three hits and no walks, striking out ten. It was the best start turned in by a Yankee in weeks. In fact, it seemed like Tanaka might have been making his case to start the wild-card game.

If you had said three months ago that there would be ambiguity regarding who should start for the Yankees in a potential one-game playoff, you probably would have been laughed out of the room. Severino was one of the favorites for the AL Cy Young award, while the rest of the rotation was somewhat in disarray. Jordan Montgomery went under the knife, Sonny Gray imploded, and Tanaka injured both his hamstrings.

Yet here we are now. With Severino several weeks into his slump and Tanaka looking entirely dialed in, it is anyone’s guess as to who will take the ball when the Yankees’ season is on the line. If the season ended today, at this point, the favorite would probably be Tanaka.

The exact cause of Severino’s problems is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s clear he hasn’t been himself lately. Since the All-Star Break, he owns an ugly 6.95 ERA. Opposing hitters have tattooed him for a .318/.353/.553 slash line. His fastball velocity has dropped every month since June, a concerning signal. He simply hasn’t looked like an ace in two months.

Meanwhile, Tanaka has been rounding into form. Tanaka began his second half with a three-hit shutout of the Rays, and he hasn’t looked back since. In nine starts post All-Star Break, Tanaka has thrown 58.1 innings with a 2.30 ERA. He has held hitters to a .652 OPS, and fanned 61 batters compared to just 10 walks.

It’s not abundantly clear if Tanaka changed something when he came back from injury. His velocity isn’t up since the All-Star Break. He has hardly altered his pitch mix, sacrificing a handful of two-seam fastballs in favor of four-seamers, but still heavily relying on his killer slider/splitter combo.

Rather, it appears more likely that Tanaka has just pitched a little better in every aspect of the game. His groundball rate is a tick up post All-Star Break, as his swinging strike rate. He’s cut back on walks and home runs, perhaps an indication of both improved control a dash of good fortune.

Regardless of precisely why Tanaka has been rolling, the distinction is clear; Tanaka is on fire, and Severino is ice-cold. We’re trafficking in counterfactuals here, but if the wild-card game was next week, it seems awfully difficult to envision manager Aaron Boone tabbing anyone other than Tanaka to start.

And yet, with all that said, it is too early to declare who should take the mound in a winner-take-all game. Tanaka is making a strong push right now, but even with his stellar play of late, Severino’s overall numbers on the year are superior. Severino outranks Tanaka in every calculation of WAR, and has better strikeout, walk, and home run rates.

Tanaka has been far better of late, but throwing out Severino’s incredible start to the season would be to forget just how talented the young right-hander is. Severino looked like one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball for the first three months of the year, and he still has the most ability of anyone on the Yankees’ staff. Tanaka has great secondary stuff, but hardly anyone in the game can match Severino’s triple-digit heat and wipeout breaker when he is on.

Despite his struggles, Severino’s abundant talent means that he should be given every chance to straighten himself out over the final month and prove he is up to the challenge of the wild-card game. Tanaka’s excellent performance means that the Yankees have a solid backup plan if Severino can’t put himself back together. Everything will be clearer in a few weeks, but for now, Tanaka is making his case.