When Masahiro Tanaka first arrived in camp this spring, Brian Cashman told reporters he expected the Yankees' new $155 million import to emerge as "a really solid, consistent number three starter."
Yeah. Okay, Brian. That claim was dubious back then. Even in the whacked out world of modern baseball economics, solid number threes don't make that kind of money, and Tanaka's otherworldly numbers for the Rakuten Golden Eagles didn't exactly foretell that sort of future for the 25-year-old, anyway. Once the season started and we learned what Tanaka can do in the Major Leagues - and what the rest of the 2014 Yankee rotation can't - the notion of him as mid-rotation fodder grew even more outlandish. By the time he threw eight scoreless and fanned ten in his third regular season start, it was already abundantly clear who was the new ace of the Yankees' staff.
As the season's progressed, Tanaka's only seemed to get better. Entering tonight's start in Seattle, he's allowed all of two earned runs in his last 20.2 innings. He's in the top five in the American league in just about every meaningful stat, leading in ERA (2.02) and WHIP (0.96), while running a close second to a Mr. Felix Hernandez in xFIP (2.47) and SIERA (2.55) and placing third in K:BB rate (7.08). You don't need me to tell you how good this guy is. He's been an absolute savior for a rotation addled by injury and ineffectiveness and for an offense that can't seem to score enough to support mere mortal starting pitchers.
So what's the problem? Hopefully there is none, but Yankees have come to rely on Tanaka a lot. Tonight will be his thirteenth start, and so far he's thrown 84.2 innings, putting him on pace for 34 and 240 respectively. Both of those numbers would demolish career highs set in Japan - 28 starts all the way back in 2007 at age 18 and 226.1 innings pitched in 2011. The 240 innings, should Tanaka get there, would be the most thrown by a Yankee pitcher since Andy Pettitte...in 1997. While Japanese starters are bred to throw on six days rest across a 144-game season, Tanaka's been given that long a break just once this season. He's pitched on five days rest six times, including tonight and four days rest five times. In ten of his twelve starts so far, Tanaka's offered more than 100 pitches.
Typically, star pitchers brought over from Japan have been allowed to ease in to the rigors of the 162-game American season during their first year. The Texas Rangers made a concerted effort to hold Yu Darvish back, limiting him to 29 starts averaging 6.6 innings each in 2012 before unleashing his full fury a year later and the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma made 14 of his 30 appearances out of the pen in his debut season. Hiroki Kuroda took the ball for 31 starts in 2008, but he was allowed to pass 100 pitches in just four of them. Going back to 1995, Hideo Nomo was held to 28 starts by the tail end of the players' strike. The only notable Japanese rookie pitcher who threw without limitation, intended or artificial, was Daisuke Matsuzaka, who managed 204.2 innings over 32 starts in 2007. By 2009 he'd lost some velocity on his fastball and was dealing with chronic arm problems.
All of this may amount to nothing. The pitchers mentioned above have very little in common with one another besides their country of birth and the fact that they're stepping up from a league that plays fewer games and rests its pitchers more. Tanaka's young, but not so young that his arm hasn't fully developed. He's in excellent shape and he's got a sturdy build and a fluid nonviolent delivery. He's a tactician on the mound and has a keen understanding of when to conserve energy and when to rear back for a little something extra. He may be perfectly designed to sit among the league's leaders in starts and innings and never feel any ill effects from it.
The Yankees are in an unenviable position when it comes to protecting their investment in Tanaka. On the one hand they're into him for a minimum of four years and $88 million - a lot more than that if he falls apart physically and doesn't opt out of his contract after 2017. On the other, he's one of the few positives keeping the team competitive these days. They need to win his games and they need him to go deep in them to help rest relievers who've been seriously taxed by the remainder of the starting staff.
When the Yankees are faced with a choice between the long-term and the right now, we know which option they'll usually pick, but they have been trying to walk a tightrope with Tanaka. While he's routinely eclipsed the 100-pitch plateau, he's gone over 110 just three times, maxing out at 118. We haven't seen any starts reminiscent of his 160-pitch endeavor in game six of last year's Japan Series. Thanks to Monday's rainout in Kansas City, Vidal Nuno could have been skipped and Tanaka kept on four days rest this week, but Joe Girardi didn't go in that direction. It's those kinds of subtle moves that will be crucial in preserving Tanaka as much as possible while still maxing out his incredible value.