Over his first two and a half months with the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka has already proven a lot. He’s proven that his stuff does translate from Japan to the major leagues. He’s proven he is capable of being the Yankees’ No. 1 starter. And perhaps most importantly, he’s proven that he can handle whatever pressure situations are thrown his way.
Tanaka began the season as the team’s fourth starter. But, with three of the team’s starters going down with injuries, and Hiroki Kuroda putting together a very inconsistent year so far, Tanaka has been thrust into the role of the team’s ace. And while it’s impossible to know what’s going on inside the head of 25-year-old right hander from Itami, Japan, from the outside it does not seem like he’s broken a sweat since arriving.
One would think that the pressure of carrying a team in the biggest media market on the planet in just his first season in a new country would cause major anxiety for Tanaka. Heck, A.J. Burnett’s brain probably would have exploded by now if it were him dealing with this. But, the need to be almost perfect in every start has not caused Tanaka’s game to suffer. He’s just gone out in every fifth day and given his club a much-needed chance at victory.
Tanaka came in with high expectations, but few could have envisioned the absolutely remarkable start he has gotten off to in his first year in the majors. After picking up the win against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, Tanaka is now 11-1 on the year, with an ERA of 1.99, a WHIP of 0.95 and a K/9 of 9.90.
There has been so much to be in awe already in his first season with the Yankees. With runners on base this year, opponents are hitting just .183 against Tanaka. And with runners in scoring position, that number goes down to .164. He’s already had five games of at least 10 strikeouts, and has gone at least six innings with three earned runs or less given up in each of his first 14 major league starts.
On days he does not start, the Yankees are just 24-31, but when he does take the mound they are 12-2. He has not only been their best pitcher, but their best player. Really you could make the argument that his performance has been AL MVP worthy so far this season. The man has done everything possible to keep his team right in the thick of the AL East race, including winning his last five starts.
Outside of one average start at Wrigley Field, in which he still went six innings and only gave up three earned runs, the man has yet to show he’s human. There is still a long way to go in the season, but as of right now Tanaka is on pace to have the best season by a Yankees pitcher since Ron Guidry in 1978.
Is it reasonable to expect Tanaka to keep up this pace for the rest of the season? Probably not. But one thing’s for sure: whatever pressure situations are thrown at Tanaka the rest of the way, he will be ready. Now, will the rest of his team be up to the task? That’s a different story.