This was a season of highs for Masahiro Tanaka. In his fourth year in the majors, the bottom seemingly fell out on the Yankees’ ace, and he had his worst year yet. He had a career-high in ERA, FIP, walk rate, and home run rate. Given that this was the season before his opt out kicked in, his performance was supposed to be key. In the end, it was, just not in the way we all expected.
Tanaka looked all set to begin 2017 after a 2016 season that saw him place seventh in the Cy Young Award votes. This was finally to be the year where maybe he’d be right up there with the elite pitchers in the game. Unfortunately, things went badly from day one, starting with a seven-run performance over just 2.2 innings in the season opener.
Things didn’t get much better beyond that, and by the end of May he had a 6.34 ERA going for him. He began to pitch better in June, but consistency no longer seemed to be his strength. He was far more hittable than ever before, surrendered more home runs, and seemed to pitch a clunker every few times out. By the end of the first half, Tanaka had a 5.47 ERA to go along with a home run rate over 2.
His problem all year long seemed to be a lack of command, because not only was he leaving pitches out over the plate, he was also walking more batters. In the past, when Tanaka gave up home runs, they were usually solo shots because he never allowed anyone on base. The problem this year was that he was giving up hard hits and people were getting on base. That proved to be a disastrous combination.
The good thing was that he drastically improved in the second half of the season. He dropped to a 3.77 ERA and 3.41 FIP after the All-Star break, showing that he could make adjustments to prevent hitters from getting on base as frequently and destroying the baseball as badly. He still wasn’t where we all thought he should have been, but at least it was better, and manageable.
Tanaka’s saving grace for the season was his continued ability to strike batters out. His career-high 9.8 K/9 and 15% swinging strike rate proved to be the lone bright spot. The thing with Tanaka is he has a bevy of options to choose from, and he’s always tinkering in order to stay ahead of the competition. The problem was that, no matter what he did, his cutter was getting hammered. He relied on his splitter and slider to miss bats, which helped him stay afloat.
Despite his inconsistent nature in the regular season, Tanaka showed up when it mattered most in the playoffs. He was set back third in the pitching order, but came into Game 3 of the ALDS and did work against the Cleveland Indians. Backed into a two-game deficit in a best of five series, Tanaka pitched a gem, keeping Cleveland scoreless through seven innings to get the Yankees a 1-0 win.
He came up big again in the ALCS against the Houston Astros by dueling Dallas Keuchel through six innings, leading to a hard-luck 1-2 loss in Game 1. Tanaka then shut out Houston in Game 5 when he struck out eight and pitched seven scoreless while the Yankees offense beat up on Dallas Keuchel.
Many believed that despite his struggles in the regular season, Tanaka had done enough in the second half and the playoffs to opt out of his remaining three years and $67 million. The problem was whether or not the Yankees would have attempted to retain him if he did. Things took a surprising turn when Tanaka ultimately decided to stay, so it saved everyone a lot of grief.
Now the Yankees have the front of their rotation secure with Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Masahiro Tanaka. Hopefully we will learn that 2017 was an aberration and not a sign of things to come over the next three years. Whether he regains his previous form or remains a mid-rotation arm, the Yankees are much better off with him than they are without him.