The best starting pitcher on the New York Yankees this year might be a guy who had a 4.74 ERA in 2017 — even if Luis Severino mostly repeats his breakout season, Sonny Gray pitches up to his potential, and both CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery are as good as they can reasonably be expected to be.
Masahiro Tanaka was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball last year, by both rate and volume — of guys who were permitted to darken their team’s door for 160 or more innings, Tanaka had the 11th-worst raw ERA and the 19th-worst ERA+. This puts him in the company of the Ty Blachs and the Ariel Mirandas of the world, though there were some other talented pitchers — Jordan Zimmermann, Tanner Roark, and Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello — who drifted around that zone as well.
Last year was a shock to the system for a lot of pitchers. League hitting jumped a whopping 11 points of OPS, from .739 to .750, and has been climbing steadily since it was .700 in 2014. With MLB swinging back to being a hitters’ league, some pitchers are going to get left hanging in the wind.
Tanaka, of course, is one of the many pitchers coming over from the Japanese professional leagues in the current generation — a trend that kicked off in 2012 with the arrival of Yu Darvish in Arlington, Texas, and Hisashi Iwakuma in Seattle, though pitchers from NPB and the Taiwanese and Korean professional leagues have been regularly coming over for two decades. Darvish in particular kicked off the trend of young aces taking their talents to America in their primes, and since his arrival we’ve received Tanaka, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, and this year, two-way threat Shohei Ohtani.
All those guys — with the exception of Ohtani, who will likely make his debut this year as the Angels’ number two starter and rotating designated hitter — have been above-average to very good starting pitchers in the majors since they came over. Tanaka has been the second-best behind Darvish. While Darvish tested free agency this year (eventually signing an arguably team-friendly deal with the Chicago Cubs in the shadow of one of the worst market freezes since the early 1990s), Tanaka, who had the option to opt out of his contract with the Yankees before the free agency period began, elected to remain with the club and play out the remaining three years on his deal. It’s up for debate whether this was canny market reading on the part of his agent or a conservative move made after a season which was hardly a best-foot-forward walk year, but either way, Tanaka and his representation now look like some of the smartest prognosticators in a league where Jake Arrieta, only two years removed from a Cy Young Award and 32 years old, still struggles to find work.
Part of the calculation is injury risk. While Tanaka averaged 177 IP and 28 starts the last three years — not bad numbers by any reading, though 20 innings and three starts below where teams want a mainstay of a rotation — the through-line underneath the stats has been noticeable: the constant managing a series of elbow and shoulder injuries for the pitcher.
Tanaka declined to undergo Tommy John surgery after partially tearing the UCL in his throwing elbow in July of 2014, and has never been fully healthy since; his most recent ailment last season was right shoulder inflammation. At this point it’s folly to think he’s especially at risk for a full tear of the UCL any more than any other pitcher, but every pitcher is always at risk of a full UCL tear; the big issue now is whether he can manage the day-in, day-out durability to pitch 200 innings in MLB. It should be noted this is something he did in NPB only twice — 226 1/3 IP in 2011 and 212 IP in 2013 — during his seven years as a Japanese pro. To compare him to his NPB contemporaries in MLB, Darvish and Maeda both reached 200 innings four times in six full seasons. It’s possible that Tanaka doesn’t have the stamina to consistently pump out those kinds of seasons — but there should be at least one coming down the pipe for New York, just based on variance and prior performance.
Why not next year? Everything else is going right for the Yankees. They’ve upgraded at defense across the infield, expecting a full season from Greg Bird at first base and “someone not named Starlin Castro” at second. Didi Gregorius is as good at short as ever, and Brandon Drury certainly has the youth and the chops to improve the expectations the Yankees have at third base. Regardless of how everything finally shakes out with Jacoby Ellsbury, the outfield foursome of Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton doesn’t have a “minus” defender among them. Tanaka, who in 2016 was a 140 ERA+ guy with a 4.58 K/BB ratio he improved upon while getting shelled last year, which is better than not doing so, is stepping into one of the best situations a pitcher can hope for on a team that’s an instant World Series contender.
What does all this mean, then? If he stays healthy, stays focused, stays talented, and the Yankees don’t revert to Triple-A players, Masahiro Tanaka will almost certainly be your 2018 American League Comeback Player of the Year.