2015 Statistics: 24 GS, 154 IP, 3.51 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 0.994 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 1.6 BB/9
2015 Contract Status: 5 years, $111 million left on contract (can opt out after 2017)
An ace takes the field every fifth day and puts his team in a position to win. To me, this has been Masahiro Tanaka's role since the Yankees picked him up prior to the 2014 season, except for one big caveat. It seems every fifth day might be a bigger problem for the Japanese import than the Yankees thought when they signed him. What did Tanaka do right in 2015? What did he do wrong? Let's take a look back and find out.
The Yankees gave Tanaka a seven-year, $155 million deal prior to the 2014 season. They even gave him an opt-out clause after the first four years. Brian Cashman and the Yankees brass did all this because the then 25-year old right-hander from Hyogo, Japan was a bonafide stud, and the best pitcher available on the market. He was young, talented and reliable, having just come off a season in which he had gone 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. 24-0! I know wins is an antiquated stat that doesn't fully evaluate how good or bad a pitcher actually is, but come on... 24-0.
Even without the gaudy 2013 numbers, Tanaka always had a reputation as a winner. He started his professional career right out of high school after he was drafted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2006, and was a full-time member of their rotation the next season at just 18 years of age. He became the first rookie out of high school to make the NPB All-Star team that season, and the accolades piled on after that. He was the 2007 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, won the Eiji Sawamura Award (the NPB's Cy Young equivalent) in 2011 and 2013, was a five-time All-Star and led the Eagles to a Japan Series championship in that magical 24-0 season. Overall, counting the playoffs and the end of the 2012 season, Tanaka won 30 consecutive decisions, a streak that was stopped, ironically enough, in Game 6 of the 2013 Japan Series (don't worry, he came back to close out Game 7 and clinch the series for Rakuten).
Unfortunately for Tanaka, his debut season in the Bronx was cut short by elbow inflammation. This kicked off a huge debate about whether Tanaka should have Tommy John surgery. Both sides had strong arguments. The Tommy Johners felt that it was inevitable that Tanaka's UCL would eventually tear completely anyway, so they thought he should just get the surgery out of the way, sit out 2015 and come back strong for 2016. Others felt that it would be ridiculous to cut into a pitcher's elbow if they didn't have to. Tommy John has become routine, but the risk for something to go wrong is always present. In the end, the Yankees and Tanaka came together and decided to rehab the injury instead of opting for the surgery. After three months on the shelf, Tanaka returned to the mound for one last September start. He was shelled, but at least he was healthy.
Because of the 2014 elbow injury, 2015 began under a bit of a cloud for the right-hander. When he pitched poorly in his first two starts, those who thought he should have gotten the surgery the year before brought out their "I told you so's." Fortunately for the Yankees, Tanaka turned things around, allowing only one run in 13.1 innings over his next two starts. The injury bug came crawling back at the end of April, and he was placed on the DL with wrist and forearm soreness. The Yankees were adamant that his elbow was intact, but I know I was worried that TJ might be on the horizon for the ace.
Thankfully, he returned after only about a month and, save for a couple of starts here and there, pitched very well the rest of the way. The question is though, was he the ace the Yankees needed? In my opinion, you need look no further than how he performed against the Blue Jays the rest of the way in order to gauge the success of his season, and his ace status. Despite the fact that the Jays knocked him around in his very first start of the season, and the fact that they added Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere to their already potent lineup at the trade deadline, Tanaka absolutely dominated them down the stretch.
During their surge to the top of the division, the Jays couldn't seem to figure out Tanaka at all. In three second-half starts against the Yankees' biggest rival, Tanaka pitched 22 innings, allowing just 12 hits, 3 walks and 3 runs (a 1.22 ERA and a 0.681 WHIP) in the process. Over a one-month period, Tanaka made one of the most dangerous offenses of the decade look like the Florida Marlins. To me, that's an ace. I don't care if he spent some time on the DL (Tanaka ended up hurting a hamstring late in the season as well). Games like that can make or break a pitcher's reputation, and Tanaka passed those tests with flying colors. Even though the offense was faltering, and some of the other starters were hurt or unreliable, the Yankees were able to count on Tanaka against their biggest rival.
Was his season perfect? Not at all. He had some issues for sure. For one, the injuries. Whether he's breaking down, or just unable to adjust to pitching every fifth day (pitchers basically pitch once per week in Japan), he has to be able to stay healthy for a full season somehow. Another glaring issue for Tanaka is his home run problem. In 20 starts and 136.1 innings in 2014, he allowed 15 home runs. That number went way up in 2015, as he allowed 25 homers in 154 innings. Although Tanaka was able to minimize that problem by walking only 1.6 BB/9 and only allowing 7.4 hits per nine innings those 25 home runs were clearly a problem that he needs to work on this offseason.
The home runs, and the fact that he again missed time with injuries, kept me from giving Tanaka an A for the season. That being said, I fully expect him to be an ace when he's on the mound next season, I just hope he's on the mound for 30 or 32 starts instead of 20-25. Maybe the answer is for the Yankees to invest in a couple of extra arms and go with a six-man rotation. It's hard to find even five good arms to fill a rotation these days, let alone six, but the Yankees have the money to make it happen if they're willing to spend it. It might seem unorthodox to go with a six-man rotation for an entire season, but it would keep everyone rested. Besides, there was a time when using five starters was thought of as unconventional too.
Whatever the solution may be, 2015 was another good year for Masahiro Tanaka. Here's hoping he has a truly great and healthy 2016. If he can do that, I don't think the Yankees will have to worry about barely making the playoffs as the second wild card again.