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Remembering Masahiro Tanaka’s five best starts as a Yankee

Although he’s remembered for his clutch postseasons, Tanaka threw some real gems in the regular season too.

2019 ALCS Game 4 - Houston Astros v. New York Yankees Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yankees fans woke up on Thursday morning to the news that had seemed inevitable for a few months, but was still going to be incredibly difficult to accept: fan favorite starter Masahiro Tanaka officially announced that he would not be back in pinstripes in 2021, returning to Japan to pitch for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Now that Tanaka’s time with the Yankees is over, it’s time to appreciate his seven years of service with the team. His finest moments came in the postseason, but looking back on his tenure using Bill James’ “Game Score” metric, we were able to uncover some regular season gems that may have been forgotten over the years.

5. May 14, 2014 at New York Mets – Game Score: 87

If Mets fans across town hadn’t bought into Tanaka’s hype early in his MLB career, he made believers out of them in his first Subway Series appearance. Tanaka pitched a complete game shutout against a Mets lineup that included Daniel Murphy, David Wright and Curtis Granderson, striking out eight Mets while walking none. It was his first MLB complete game and first shutout, and Tanaka even got his first (and only) career hit in the contest, a single off Jose Valverde in the ninth that confirmed he would get to finish what he started and go the distance.

4. April 16, 2014 vs. Chicago Cubs – Game Score: 87

This game was just Tanaka’s second appearance at Yankee Stadium, and he kicked off an early-season doubleheader vs. Chicago in style. He threw eight scoreless innings in this one, striking out 10 Cubs, only walking one, and allowing just two hits. His pitch count sat at 107, leading Joe Girardi to pull Tanaka after eight innings, but he probably could’ve finished this game.

Prior to his elbow injury, Tanaka was a different breed. He finished his career with a great slider, but began it balancing a deadly splitter with his deceptive four-seam fastball. This early-2014 Tanaka start was a perfect example of that — he induced 12 of his 16 whiffs in that contest on his splitter.

3. July 28, 2017 vs. Tampa Bay Rays – Game Score: 88

I only got to see Masahiro Tanaka pitch live once, and after years of wishing that his start would line up with my annual trip to Yankee Stadium, I finally got to see my favorite pitcher in July 2017. This season wasn’t Tanaka’s best overall, but he was electric on that muggy night against Tampa Bay. Tanaka retired the first 20 hitters he faced before Adeiny Hechavarria broke through with a single in the sixth, but Tanaka still finished with a then-career-high 14 strikeouts in eight innings of one-run ball.

This was one of those latter-day Tanaka starts where he only threw 26 percent fastballs, but his breaking stuff kept the Rays off-balance all night. It was one of his most dominant performances, and one that I’ll never forget watching at Yankee Stadium.

2. July 24, 2018 at Tampa Bay Rays – Game Score: 89

Another great effort against the Rays, and another personal connection: I was still in my infancy as a writer at Pinstripe Alley, having just entered my third month on staff, and this start from Tanaka was one of my first recaps. Just one day after a tumultuous loss where Gary Sánchez’s effort was unfairly questioned — turns out, he was injured, limiting his mobility — Tanaka steadied the ship as he so often did, going the distance with a complete game shutout. Tanaka finished the effort with 105 pitches, meaning that he nearly missed a “Maddux” (where the pitcher gets a shutout on less than 100 pitches).

It was a night equally efficient and overwhelming — prime Tanaka against the division rival he had the most success against in his career.

1. June 17, 2019 vs. Tampa Bay Rays– Game Score: 92

Tanaka’s best performance by Game Score was yet another complete game shutout against the Rays, this one coming in 2019. Unlike in 2018, when the Yankees were comfortably ahead of the Rays, this one came with the Rays just a half-game back of the division lead. Tanaka didn’t get as much support in this one, either, but he didn’t need it. He gave up just two hits, struck out 10 Rays, walked only one, and threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Tanaka only faced 29 hitters, two above the minimum, which along with the 10 strikeouts, explaining why this contest produced Tanaka’s highest game score. It ended up being his final complete game shutout in Major League Baseball, and his fourth overall in an era where shutouts are few and far between.

Postseason Honorable Mentions:

None of Tanaka’s postseason heroics earned as high a game score as these regular season contests, in part because he was removed after six or seven innings in most of them. But in terms of pure clutch, Tanaka’s playoff starts deserve a shoutout.

Who could forget when the Yankees were facing elimination against Cleveland in 2017 and Tanaka saved the season with seven shutout innings?

Or when he gave the Yankees a 3-2 series lead over Houston in the following ALCS with seven more shutout innings?

Plus, his last great postseason hurrah: six innings of one-hit, no-run baseball in Game 1 of the ill-fated 2019 ALCS vs. Houston.

Although the Yankees never won a championship with Tanaka on the team, he was their best postseason pitcher over that time. He left it all out on the field as a Yankee, and deserves to be celebrated as he takes his career in a different direction.