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Masahiro Tanaka could have been a difference-maker this year

Letting Tanaka walk with essentially no pursuit never made sense, and it’s come back to bite the Yankees.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees
Brian Cashman should hang his head in shame for letting Tanaka walk
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Masahiro Tanaka officially returned to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, I wrote about the ugly business that is baseball. One of my favorite players — one who I will defend until the end of time — left my favorite team, and there was no real justification for the move. The Yankees needed starting pitching, and one of the better pitchers on the market who just spent seven seasons as one of the team’s most consistent starters was right there. Yet, they let him leave. A World Series banner is looking unlikely to fly in the Bronx this year, but the “Under the Luxury Tax” banner would be raised in 2021, come hell or high water.

There’s certainly the possibility that must be acknowledged that no matter what, Tanaka was going to return to Japan. With the pandemic roaring through the globe, he could have felt that the best thing for his family was to go back to his home. However, even in his introductory press conference with Rakuten, Tanaka said what everyone knew: He wanted to stay in New York.

“When I became a free agent, honestly I wanted to sign another contract with the Yankees and play there. Then, as I heard different things, I thought I might have to take a different road and considered various things.’’

Tanaka wanted to stay, but the Yankees decided to allocate their budget differently and bank on Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. This is not a knock on those players specifically, but that plan has failed. Yes, Kluber threw a no-hitter for the Yankees this year and Taillon spent a month as the team’s de facto ace while even pitching like one, but despite the truth in those two facts, those acquisitions have still fallen short.

After Kluber finally seemed to get his strength back and pitch like his prior days, he got hurt for months, and now that he’s returned, he has yet to put it back together. Taillon was awful in the first half before catching fire, then ultimately regressed in mid-August and hit the injured list himself.

At the time of their acquisitions, the consensus was that those two moves themselves weren’t bad moves in and of themselves. Bringing Kluber and Taillon aboard as the only moves to address the rotation, however, was probably a bad idea. Instead of merely taking a flyer on two pitchers who combined for one inning in 2020, the Yankees decided that those two could be counted on for consistent production behind ace Gerrit Cole and mid-rotation lefty Jordan Montgomery.

Just adding one more dependable starter between Cole and those three would have made a significant difference in the 2021 plans. The Yankees are going through a challenging time right now, fighting to stay in a playoff position. Instead of strolling into the playoffs, they’ve struggled badly. Most of the blame lies on the shoulders of the inconsistent offense. A team this talented at the plate shouldn’t struggle to score runs, yet they do. They stayed afloat mostly thanks to their pitching, but specifically their bullpen.

Taillon and Kluber struggled to last in games because of either fatigue or ineffectiveness, and because of that the bullpen has pitched too many innings. Outside of Cole, no one from the original rotation has helped out the bullpen. Néstor Cortes Jr. has pitched admirably and Luis Gil has been a pleasant surprise, but neither has pitched enough to make an impact.

Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka. In his MLB career, he averaged just over six innings per start, and excluding the shortened 2020 season, averaged 27 starts per year (even while pitching with a partially torn UCL). He did that while pitching to a sub-4.00 ERA and an ERA+ of 114. While Tanaka’s average innings per start did go down in his most recent MLB seasons, the bullpen was quite good those years and there was no need to push Tanaka farther and put more wear on his arm.

In 2021, Tanaka has made 17 starts and thrown 115 innings for Rakuten (seventh in the NPB), averaging just over 6.2 innings per start, while pitching to a 2.82 ERA even though he missed the first three weeks of the season with a calf injury. He also pitched for the Japanese national team in the Olympics while the NPB season was on pause for the event. While the competition and rest schedules between NPB and MLB are obviously different, there’s little reason to believe he wouldn’t easily be the Yankees’ second-most reliable starter behind Cole if he had remained in the Bronx.

Having another starter effectively eat innings like that would have certainly helped save the bullpen arms from pitching as much as they have. Meanwhile, while Montgomery has been pretty good, he’s only averaged 5.1 innings per start, and both Taillon and Kluber have managed a mere five innings per start. While Taillon and Montgomery have made their starts, the length just hasn’t been there. Kluber’s shaky IP/GS is especially damning when considering that there was even a complete-game no-hitter mixed in there (and against a pitiful offense).

Another thing that comes to mind is Aaron Judge’s recent comments after Monday’s comeback victory against the Twins:

While the mild dig at the pitching from Judge is silly, having a pitcher of Tanaka’s caliber in the rotation would certainly help suppress runs more to give the offense the time it needs to wake up and decide to participate. Of course, if the offense simply didn’t wait for “eventually” and put up runs often and early, the pitchers wouldn’t be as taxed either with as many high-pressure innings and maybe this team’s in a better spot, but that’s a separate conversation entirely.

Regardless, one can’t help but wonder about the team’s position if they had Tanaka in the rotation this year. Maybe Chad Green is not as burned out, maybe breakout reliever Jonathan Loáisiga manages fewer high-stress innings and doesn’t get hurt, and just maybe, Andrew Heaney isn’t pitching important innings while this team is hunting for a playoff spot.

It’s hard to say exactly where this team would be if Masahiro Tanaka’s wish to remain a Yankee was fulfilled, but it’s almost guaranteed that just even that one addition would have made an impact. The Yankees should regret letting him walk, and if the door’s still open, they should certainly consider a reunion in 2022.

*Stats provided courtesy of Baseball Reference.