Masahiro Tanaka has been with the Yankees since 2014. Some may not believe it, but that means he has completed his sixth year as a Yankee. Tanaka was 25 in his first season with the Yankees, and in 2020 he’ll be entering his age-31 season.
Now, I’ll say this upfront. Tanaka has never been the best pitcher in the league. He has a career ERA of 3.75 which comfortably qualifies him as a number two. He is known to give up the homer, which at some points can significantly inflate his rate or runs allowed. In the end, however, he’s been a very solid pitcher while often hinting at something more.
Of course, he’s done his best work in the postseason. Tanaka has four Octobers on his record, and each time he’s been nothing short of excellent. In fact, he has now put his name incredibly high in the record books. He became the first pitcher in MLB Postseason history to allow two or fewer earned runs in each of his first seven postseason starts:
Masahiro Tanaka postseason career:— YES Network (@YESNetwork) October 17, 2019
36 K/9 BB
He's the first pitcher in MLB history to allow 2-runs-or fewer in each of his first SEVEN postseason starts. pic.twitter.com/oPAAHFpdfd
He also pitched to the third-lowest ERA of all-time (minimum seven games) in the postseason with a 1.32 ERA behind only Christy Matthewson and Sandy Koufax. A significant part of Tanaka’s legacy in New York so far simply has to be his stellar postseason performance.
I’m laying this all out for you so I can say this: A veteran pitcher who rarely gets injured, consistently churns out 30 starts in a season, and shows out in the playoffs is exactly what every team wants when they sign a free-agent pitcher. Of course, you want and need your aces; every playoff and championship team does. But players like Tanaka, a notch below the ace tier who nonetheless bring consistency and experience to the field every year, are huge building blocks for a championship team.
I wrote earlier this year about the Yankees’ financial outlook in 2020 and the next few seasons. The Yankees will be able to compete with this same young core over the next few years without breaking the bank. They will have every chance to keep Tanaka in the fold even after he hits the free market at the end of next season. Having a pitcher like Tanaka, plausibly as the third or fourth starter in the rotation, is a boon to a team’s title chances. He’ll bring poise, maturity, and confidence to a team of young stars in New York City.
Exactly where Tanaka slots into the rotation next season is anyone’s guess, though there have of course been the requisite rumors. They will certainly be connected to Gerrit Cole, and they should be in the market for starting pitching. Bringing in reinforcements so that Tanaka isn’t the only starter the Yankees feel confident in when the playoffs roll around can only help the team’s chances.
Regardless, with a rotation full of question marks at the moment, Tanaka profiles as one of the most important figures on the Yankees’ staff. It can be easy to get frustrated with him after some ugly-looking starts in the middle of July, but knowing that he contains a playoff beast inside ensures that he’ll play a big role influencing the Yankees’ ultimate fate.