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Masahiro Tanaka’s Opening Day history may be a little misleading

The Yankees have lost all three of the right-hander’s previous Opening Day starts.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts
He’s the most adorable person ever and I just want to hug him.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ recent history with Opening Day has been terrible. Since 2009, the Yankees have won just twice to open the season. They also lost six games in a row before that streak was snapped last year. Suffice it to say, the first game of the year has not been kind to the Bombers. Masahiro Tanaka started three of those losses and he’s just been announced as the Opening Day starter for 2019. So are we in for another dud?

Going into spring, the question of the Opening Day starter didn’t exist. Fresh off signing a four-year extension and firmly-entrenched as the staff ace despite a rough second-half, Luis Severino was in line to start his second consecutive Opening Day. Unfortunately, shoulder inflammation shut him down, and then the question arose of who should start in his place.

The Yankees wasted no time in announcing his replacement. I’d have suggested CC Sabathia as a way to honor him in his final MLB year, but he’s starting the year on the Injured List ,and even if that wasn’t the case, he has a five-game suspension to serve. That left Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ as the only choices, although, I guess they could’ve just spat on the whole thing and started Luis Cessa.

Tanaka was the easy choice from the crop of candidates. Opening Day starter is a special honor, one of which Tanaka is more than deserving. Again, though, should we expect another dud? For me, the real question was whether he actually deserved the reputation for poor opening starts, or if there was more to the story.

His most recent Opening Day start came on April 2nd, 2017. It’s also the easiest of the three to break down, as he was simply bad. Tanaka had nothing working for him and let the Rays come out to a 3-0 lead in the first. Even after the first, he just couldn’t get anything going and eventually settled for a final line to the tune of 2.2 innings pitched and seven runs allowed on eight hits. Yikes.

The previous year was much better. This was a rematch of the 2015 AL Wild Card game, and as Jake Devin then pointed out:

The Yankees opened the 2016 season much like they ended the 2015 season; with a disappointing loss to the Astros. Despite a solid start from Masahiro Tanaka, New York couldn’t quite muster enough offense against Dallas Keuchel, falling by a score of 5-3.

However, this was definitely Tanaka’s best start of the three in question today. Tanaka was granted a 2-0 lead in the second, and though he failed to hold on to the lead, he still pitched a fine game. He allowed his first run in the fourth, which was almost a direct result of Aaron Hicks misplaying a ball in left field. That allowed Jose Altuve to start the inning on second base. Tanaka kept the ball on the ground after that, but Altuve managed to score on a fielder’s choice.

He held the Astros to one run until the sixth when he left a splitter over the plate that Carlos Correa drove to the seats with two outs. Tanaka walked the next batter, his first walk of the game, and it was at that point that Joe Girardi lifted him and limited the damage. Tanaka left the game tied 2-2 after 5.2 innings pitched. The Yankees eventually lost this 5-3 but that was well after Tanaka left the game. This was the infamous, “should Dellin Betances murder Correa with a baseball to the back of the head?” game.

Right now, we’re tied 1-1 in dissecting Tanaka as an Opening Day starter. Luckily, there are no ties in baseball and fortunately we have a third game to break down to help answer the question.

Or so I thought. His first ever Opening Day start is also the hardest to read. Tanaka only lasted four innings and was responsible for five runs. That should be pretty simple to decipher: it was bad. Upon examination, the picture is murkier.

Tanaka looked great in the first two innings, when he struck out three batters and was able to consistently place the ball where he wanted with solid velocity. He then lost it in the third. He struggled with his command, which was followed by a Chase Headley error (I don’t miss those), but the exclamation point came on a three-run home run from Edwin Encarnacion. Tanaka still came back out for the fourth and looked more like the Tanaka from the first two innings. Still, it was too late. He was sharp in three of the four innings he pitched, but things fell apart in the one inning in which he faltered.

Obviously, results matter the most. I’ll admit advanced analytics go over my head often, but I’m still not one to dismiss any information that can help. That being said, I can still tell you that even if a player is doing all the right things but it’s not resulting in anything good, that’s bad. Go ahead and award me the MacArthur Genius Grant now. But if we’re talking about Tanaka’s Opening Day starts, it’s a mixed bag right now. Maybe there are ties in baseball.

There’s as much good as there is bad, even if the results scream bad. The point of this was not to defend any poor outings, but to make sense of a poor reputation. Three team losses overshadow his actual results from those games. But his resume from those games shows that he’s not solely at fault for the team’s losses, and that’s about as much as you can ask.

Tanaka also knows that he wasn’t the team’s first choice for this honor, saying that it felt “a little bit different from the previous three Opening Days, just because Sevy got hurt this time.” Even though he wasn’t the first choice, he’s not sulking about it and still considers it an honor to be given the ball that day. And he knows that he has work to do to turn the narrative around:

“I think it comes down to experience, to be able to perform on Opening Day,” Tanaka said in the clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field via his Japanese translator. “Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to experience playoff games, and pitching in big games and I have that experience under my belt. Going into this Opening Day, I think that experience will help me perform better.”

He knows he hasn’t been great and it looks like he knows eyes will be on him to be better. Fortunately, he seems pretty confident in his ability to turn the story around, even if the current narrative is a bit unfair to him. The truth is that with Tanaka on the mound, the Yankees have a chance to start the season a high note. Let’s hope it goes that way.