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Masahiro Tanaka has been worth every penny for the Yankees

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Not every big free agent contract works out, but Tanaka has held up his end of the bargain.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Nearly six years ago, in January of 2014, the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract. At the time, the deal was the fifth-largest contract in terms of overall value in MLB history for a pitcher, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and CC Sabathia’s respective mega-deals. Since then, David Price, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Stephen Strasburg have surpassed Tanaka’s contract, but that’s still pretty exclusive company.

Does Tanaka belong among these names? I’m a Tanaka fan, and even I would have trouble definitively saying“yes”. Talent-wise, the above pitchers are - or were - among the very best in baseball. I’d take their primes over Tanaka’s.

A closer look at Tanaka’s career, however, so far reveals that he belongs squarely in the middle of that cohort, in terms of the bang he’s provided for the buck the Yankees shelled out for him.

The list below shows each player’s total salary, juxtaposed with their fWAR and dollar value (per FanGraphs), over the duration of their respective contracts to date.

Top 10 largest contracts, starting pitchers

Player Salary to date fWAR to date Value to date
Player Salary to date fWAR to date Value to date
Tanaka $110 million 15.5 $122.4 million
Price $90 million 8.8 $69.9 million
Kershaw $122 million 30.7 $243.8 million
Scherzer $55 million 25.4 $204.1 million
Greinke $103.2 million 10.8 $86.6 million
Verlander $152 million 26.8 $210.4 million
Hernandez $148 million 16.4 $125.1 million
Strasburg $30 million 8 $63.4 million
Sabathia $161 million 26 $176.7 million
Top 10 largest contracts, starting pitchers Cot’s Contracts, FanGraphs

It’s true that Tanaka’s peak value doesn’t compare to these pitchers, especially the likes of Kershaw, Scherzer, and Verlander. That said, unlike Price, Hernandez and Sabathia, he has largely been able to avoid a significant drop-off in performance as he enters the latter half of his contract. All in all, five years into his contract, Tanaka has been worth more than what the Yankees are paying him to do.

That Tanaka has lived up to his contract so far looks even more impressive when you consider what he’s been through in his stateside career. After bursting onto the scene in 2014 with a 2.51 ERA in the first half of the season, Tanaka suffered the UCL tear heard ‘round the world, putting a serious damper on his career prospects. In addition, his four-seam fastball, a trusty weapon for him in Japan, turned out to be his Achilles’ heel in the States, contributing to his struggles with the long ball. As far as risky investments go, “pitcher with a partially torn UCL and a bad fastball” is right up there with “outfielder who is more fragile than that paper-mache volcano you (read: your mom) made for your 3rd-grade science fair”. Sorry, Ellsbury, I couldn’t resist.

Tanaka has found a way to make it work. He’s relied on his splitter, the best in the world, along with a top-notch slider and two-seam fastball. He’s done it by living at and around the edges of the strike zone, knowing when to coax hitters into fishing below their knees, and when to freeze them with a pitch on the black. And while Tanaka has certainly thrown fewer innings over the course of his Yankees career than we had all hoped, his impressive fWAR total speaks to the actual quality of those innings. He’s been worth every penny of his contract, one of the largest in MLB history.

Some of you might roll your eyes at that last sentence, and point out that the Yankees have won a grand total of zero World Series since signing Tanaka, which is the whole point, right? In rebuttal, I will point out that Tanaka owns a career postseason ERA of 1.50 in 30 innings and was largely responsible for the Yankees’ sole win against Boston in the 2018 ALDS. In five postseason starts, he has never gone fewer than five innings, and he has never given up more than two runs. Too bad Tanaka can’t pitch every game in every October!

No one knows what will happen in the final two years of Tanaka’s deal, so it’s too early to declare the entirety of the pact above water. Yet Tanaka’s core skills are very much intact, along with his elbow ligaments, so I’m optimistic about his 2019. Steamer agrees, pegging him for a 3.94 ERA over 156.0 innings and 2.6 WAR. If second-half Tanaka shows up for longer, and he avoids blowing up his hamstrings while running the bases in an interleague game, he should easily surpass those projections. And given that Tanaka will only be 32 in 2020, the final year of his contract, we can expect another above-average season from the righty.

Sure, the magnitude of Masahiro Tanaka’s contract precedes his reputation. His name will never inspire fear in the hearts of opposing lineups like Kershaw’s, or Scherzer’s, or Verlander’s. He's just quietly lived up to his mega-contract despite a career-threatening injury and an underwhelming fastball, thanks to world-class secondaries and the intelligence to use them perfectly. When Tanaka’s right, he can go toe-to-toe with any pitcher in baseball. Here’s to watching him work his magic for two more years.