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Masahiro Tanaka is an ace, but he's criminally underappreciated by Yankees fans

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Masahiro Tanaka has pitched like one of the best starters in the league for three year now, but for some reason many fans don't view him as an ace.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When Felix Hernandez starts in Seattle, hundreds of fans flock to join the Kings Court. Clayton Kershaw outings are treated like a holiday in Los Angeles, and time stops in Chicago to watch Jake Arrieta or Chris Sale throw a gem. But in New York, Masahiro Tanaka's games are often met with criticism and complaints.

This may seem like an overreaction, but the scrutiny that Tanaka faces is constant. There's no single reason why, but the Yankees' ace is treated like anything but that. While other fan bases put their best starter on a pedestal, enjoying his starts and celebrating his success, Tanaka Time in the Bronx is treated like an interrogation, where any and every misstep can count against him. Every ace has a clunker, but when Tanaka has one, it's just another reason why he's supposedly overrated.

One doesn't need to go far to see the lack of appreciation. Twitter can be a dangerous place to venture, and it's exhibit A for the defamation of Tanaka. Simply typing into the search "Tanaka not an ace" yields hundreds of tweets (many are also defending him, so we're not without hope here). Some of the tamer of these include:

This doesn't end with the fans, either. "[Yankees pitcher] is the new ace, not Tanaka" articles are disturbingly common, and even though Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi have posted 5.88 and 4.90 ERA's, respectively, the press is always looking for reasons to push another starter to the top of the hypothetical rotation hierarchy. The amount of nitpicking dedicated toward Tanaka, especially when compared to the attention given to other struggling starters, is a bit jarring.

Since joining the league in 2014, Tanaka has thrown 66 more innings than any other Yankees starter and has also earned the most WAR. His elbow troubles have cost him the ability to accumulate value, but rate stats do just as good a job of showing how good Tanaka is. He's right up there with the elite starters when it comes to most stats, and that's because he is one of those elite starters.

Just saying that Tanaka is very, very good isn't quite enough though. Here's a couple of numbers to strengthen the point. To start, I'll provide you a list of starters who have a K/9 over 8, BB/9 under 1.75, and ERA under 3.15 since 2014:

  • Clayton Kershaw
  • Zack Greinke
  • Masahiro Tanaka

If you want more advanced stats, let's try an ERA- under 80, an FIP- under 87, and a SIERA under 3.25:

  • Clayton Kershaw
  • Jake Arrieta
  • Jacob deGrom
  • Chris Sale
  • Jon Lester
  • David Price
  • Madison Bumgarner
  • Zack Greinke
  • Max Scherzer
  • Dallas Keuchel
  • Felix Hernandez
  • Masahiro Tanaka

This club isn't quite as exclusive, but is there a name on there that you don't consider to be an ace? It's hard to argue that any of these arms aren't among the best in the league, and Masahiro Tanaka is right there with them.

That said, I do understand why there is some skepticism when it comes to declaring Tanaka an ace. People are always on the hunt to find the next shiny new toy, because that's how we work. Yankees fans have seen the triple digit heat of a Nathan Eovaldi fastball, the 16-strikeout talent of Michael Pineda, and the flashy stuff of former top prospect Luis Severino. Masahiro Tanaka isn't the kind of pitcher, who on stuff alone, is going to make you drop everything and watch him overpower hitters. That's because Tanaka doesn't rely on overpowering stuff...he doesn't need it.

Unless you have a thing for beautiful splitters and admire the polish and advanced command that Tanaka has, it's much harder to appreciate him than a player like Noah Syndergaard or Chris Sale. In a city so used to velocity that sits in the upper-echelons of what is possible, someone who only occasionally flirts with 94 mph on the radar gun is seen as less of a pitcher.

Of course, the durability factor has to come up as well. Tanaka isn't as much of a workhorse as you'd hope for, and that's something that I have to concede. He's dealt with elbow trouble in the past, and while we can all hope that it's now in the rearview mirror, that cloud will always hang over Tanaka. His disabled list stints have cost him the innings you'd want from a number one starter, and that damages the image fans have of Tanaka.

The injury talk has also somewhat skewed our perception of who Tanaka is. Notoriously armed with a quick hook, Joe Girardi has pulled Tanaka from the game before 90 pitches three times this season. It seems like he's being handled with kid gloves because of the injury history, and that there's always some worry something is going to go wrong. This skepticism overshadows the fact that since Tanaka entered the league, he's averaged 6.6 innings per start. Is that spectacular? No, but it is 24th best in baseball. The righty may not always be on the field, but when he is, nobody is being shortchanged. That innings per start mark exceeds pitchers like Sonny Gray, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and many other top pitchers.

There is another common complaint for Tanaka—the loss of effectivity that comes from short rest. This jarring fact has been tossed out there to show why Tanaka isn't dependable time and again: he has a 4.70 ERA on four day's rest this year, with a 1.26 ERA on five day's rest, and a 3.38 ERA on six-plus day's rest this season. The 4.70 ERA sticks out there, but let's remember that this is only on 38.1 innings and he has a 3.44 career ERA on four day's rest over his MLB career. A 3.44 ERA is just fine, I'd say. Small sample size is indeed a thing that many of us forget about.

Even without the small sample size, this isn't a problem that Tanaka alone has. On average this season, the league's ERA jumps from 4.15 to 4.25 when you go from five to four days of rest. One of the best pitchers in baseball is Max Scherzer, and his ERA is 69 points higher when you remove a day of rest. Jake Arrieta's is 26 points higher and Zack Greinke's is 39 more. To remind you, Tanaka's is 52 points higher. More than you'd like to see, sure, but it's not something that will kill a pitcher. You can accuse me of cherry picking the above names, and, well, you wouldn't be wrong. All I'm trying to prove is that you can be a bona fide ace, even with the four/five days rest conundrum.

Now, I'm not trying to force you to appreciate Tanaka like a number one starter, as I have no control over how you perceive him. Maybe Tanaka just doesn't look like an ace on the mound to you, because he doesn't have elite velocity and huge stuff. There's nothing I can do to control that, and frankly there's nothing wrong with thinking Tanaka's a bit boring compared to some other top arms. Instead, the point I'm trying to make is that regardless of the injury concerns and lack of ‘overpowering' stuff (as some may say) Masahiro Tanaka pitches like an ace, so it stands to reason that he is an ace. The lack of celebration for Tanaka is staggering, and the criticism incredibly unwarranted. He is the Yankees' number one starter, and it's time we view him as one.