Masahiro Tanaka made the sixth postseason start of his career on Saturday. In Game Two of the ALDS, against one of the best offenses in baseball, Tanaka once again found a way to show the baseball world that he doesn’t disappoint when it matters the most.
It was in the 2017 playoffs that Tanaka first tapped into another gear. He pitched 20 innings against the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros that year. The Indians were a team that tallied off 22-straight wins at one point, and the Astros went on to win the World Series. In those 20 innings pitched, Tanaka allowed only two runs and struck out 18 batters.
Since that dominant 2017 postseason performance, the Yankees haven’t gotten far in the playoffs with an early ALDS exit in 2018 limiting him to only one start. Yet, it was another good one, shutting down the eventual champion Red Sox to only one run over five innings pitched.
In 2019, Tanaka toed the rubber for the Yankees in Game Two of the ALDS. The right-hander gave another dominant performance, erasing his 4.45 regular-season ERA.
Masahiro Tanaka struck out only 19.6% of batters this season. Tonight, in just five innings of one-run ball, he struck out 7 of the 19 batters he faced, good enough for a 36.8% strikeout rate. pic.twitter.com/nooN9HO0A7— Max Wildstein (@MaxWildstein) October 6, 2019
Tanaka has now pitched to a 1.54 ERA the postseason, allowing six earned runs in 35 innings pitched, racking up 32 strikeouts in the process. Batters are hitting .164 against him in the postseason, and when they do put the ball in play, they’re still only getting on base about 20% of the time as his BABIP is .195.
The 30-year-old is only the second pitcher in baseball history to allow no more than two runs in each of his first six postseason starts. The only name ahead of him? Sandy Koufax. There are still plenty of playoff starts in his future, but it might be time to ask if Tanaka is one of the best postseason pitchers of our generation.
The short answer is yes. When running the numbers, Tanaka’s 1.54 ERA in the postseason is the lowest of any pitcher who has 30 innings pitched or more since the 2012 season. To clarify, plenty of pitchers have appeared in several more games and many more innings. Workhorses like Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner, and Jon Lester have all pitched to under a sub-2.50 ERA, and between the three of them, they’re averaging 118 postseason innings since 2012. Those guys make up your outliers, and it’s only fair to give them credit as established studs in the playoffs.
Regardless of Tanaka’s sample size, it would indeed be unfair to not tip your cap to what he has done so far in his playoff career. You cannot discredit him for making fewer starts or pitching fewer innings when that is in large part a result of how the team does as a whole. But you can filter the stats, and anyone can see in 35 innings against the best teams in baseball, Tanaka has been near-flawless.