Since signing with the Yankees ahead of the 2014 season, Masahiro Tanaka has provided some memorable moments. After the sheer anticipation of his acquisition, he delivered in his first season. In his Yankee Stadium debut, he struck out 10. A couple days later, he followed that up with 10 more in a two-hit shutout win over the Cubs.
Until this past October, he had also delivered nearly every time he took the mound in the postseason. In Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS, the Yankees were on the verge of elimination, and Tanaka came out and threw seven shutout innings. He also allowed just one hit in six innings in Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS.
Tanaka also somehow defeated the concept of Tommy John surgery. After getting diagnosed with a partial UCL tear in his very first season, it seemed like the operation was inevitable. Nonetheless, Tanaka has yet to go under the knife and has provided valuable seasons since.
However, Tanaka is now officially on the market as a free agent, so the big question is: should the Yankees bring him back?
Tanaka is coming off a 2020 that was pretty good on the whole. He put up a 120 ERA+ and had a 5.5 K/BB ratio. He still had some issues with allowing home runs. However, with Gerrit Cole firmly entrenched as the Yankees’ No. 1 starter, he put up a season that would be perfectly acceptable from a mid-rotation arm. If the Yankees can get that for another couple seasons, it would be a no brainer to bring him back.
However, the 2020 campaign was already the epitome of a small sample size — not to mention that he missed his first start after getting hit in the head by a liner in a simulated game. Tanaka was good this season, but his season consisted of just 48 innings and the eight extra playoff frames didn’t exactly go swimmingly.
If you look at the previous three years, Tanaka has mostly been pretty average. From 2017-19, he had a 102 ERA+ with peripherals suggesting that he was slightly better, but not by much. That was right around the time when he really started to have issues with home runs, in addition to the three worst walk rates of his career. Who’s to say that his improvement in 2020 was just a small sample and that 2017-19 is just the pitcher he is now?
For one, Tanaka has revamped his pitch arsenal over the past couple seasons, and that continued in 2020.
Tanaka’s slider had already become his most frequently used pitch, but he deployed it even more and to great effect in 2020. This past season, he allowed a .260 batting average, .429 slugging percentage, and .306 wOBA on his slider, with peripherals suggesting that it might’ve been even more effective than it already seemed (.182 xBA, .306 xSLG, .224 xwOBA). Batters whiffed at the pitch at a rate of 40.6%, which is similar to his splitter back in 2014, when that was a dominant pitch for him. Tanaka’s pitch arsenal is different that it used to be, and 2020 could very well be the proof that the changes have worked.
Another very good reason for the Yankees to bring him back is that they almost certainly need a pitcher or two. James Paxton and J.A. Happ are also hitting the open market. Luis Severino is going to miss a chunk of next season still recovering from Tommy John. Of the pitchers currently under contract, the rotation to start 2021 is probably something like Gerrit Cole, Deivi García, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, and Clarke Schmidt/Jonathan Loáisiga. Several of those names have strong potential, but there’s always a dangerous flip side to mere potential.
Not that the mostly soulless world of baseball player acquisition will value this, but it should also be noted that Tanaka also rules. He has a fun social media presence. He and his wife have apparently become close with the Cole family. Since he’s arrived, he’s been a delightful personality to have around the team. Losing that would be sad.