Luis Severino entered spring training as the presumptive Opening Day starter. A slump to the finish in 2018 didn’t overshadow his previous season and a half of dominance. Plus, he had just inked a four year, $40 million extension. It was the perfect arrangement, until it wasn’t. Severino landed on the injured list before his first Grapefruit League outing, and the team suddenly needed a new game one starter.
Enter Masahiro Tanaka.
The Bombers entrusted the veteran right-hander to get their season off right, and he took the challenge seriously. “To be able to pitch the first game of baseball, it’s an honor,” he told Bryan Hoch and Peter Kerasotis. “I’d like to go out there and give my best performance to give a good boost for the team to start out on a good note.”
Tanaka indeed delivered on Opening Day, hurling 5.2 innings of one-run ball against the Orioles. How did he fare for the rest of the season, though?
2019 Statistics: 182 IP, 4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 7.37 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 1.38 HR/9, 3.3 fWAR
2020 Contract Status: Owed $23 million in final season of seven-year contract
For the early part of the year, Tanaka was one of the team’s most formidable starters. He had slumps here and there, but through June 22, he owned a 3.21 ERA (3.91 FIP) over 16 starts. That included a dazzling performance against the Rays on June 17, in which the threw a two-hitter against Tampa Bay, striking out 10 in the process.
Consider this excerpt from Brock Hammond in the PSA recap of that game:
His 23 swings-and-misses were a season-high both in volume and percentage. His 10 strikeouts also set a new season-high. In total, just three Rays reached base all night. If Tanaka were any more dominant we would’ve seen a no-hitter. Baseball fans simply don’t see many performances like that anymore. What an outing.
Things started to go off the rails, though, when the Yankees traveled across the pond to take on the Red Sox. Like many other pitchers, Tanaka fell victim to the London Series. The right-hander allowed six earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning before getting chased from the game. It was ugly, but that environment did no favors for anyone on the mound.
July, however, found Tanaka stuck in a rough patch. While he earned a bid to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement, he had an overall nightmarish month. Across five starts, he was tagged for an 8.77 ERA (6.18 FIP) with a sky-high 2.45 HR/9 rate.
During the All-Star break, Tanaka openly addressed the juiced ball. “Probably the right word to say is, it just doesn’t feel right,” he told Brendan Kuty. He also radically adjusted the grip on his trademark splitter, in an attempt to get the ball to dive down in the zone. The adjustments to the baseball itself resulted in the pitch having noticeably less vertical movement. To compensate, he leveraged the heck out of his splitter.
Tanaka turned in a solid August, and a mostly okay September, pitching to a 3.75 ERA (3.72 FIP) in his final nine starts of the regular season. When the calendar flipped to October, however, a whole other narrative emerged: Tanaka as one of the game’s premiere postseason pitchers.
The 31-year-old made three starts in the playoffs this year. He held the Twins to one run over five innings in Game Two of the ALDS, then baffled the Astros in the ALCS opener. He tossed six shutout innings, striking out four in the Game One start. His second time facing the Houston lineup didn’t go as well, as he surrendered three runs across five innings in the Game Four loss. Nonetheless, he allowed just four runs in 16 total innings this October, leaving his career postseason ERA at a sparkling 1.76.
What comes next for Tanaka? The right-hander had arthroscopic surgery to clean up bone spurs in his right elbow after the season. According to the man himself, it went well and he’ll be ready to go for spring training.
Here’s hoping the Yankees can make the push to a World Series run before Tanaka hits free agency. He’s been worth every penny so far; it would be sweet to finally get him a ring.