Masahiro Tanaka Is an ‘Ace’

The Yankees' $155 starting pitcher is proving he was worth ever penny

Masahiro Tanaka

Everyone knew the Yankees were going to do everything possible to sign CC Sabathia after the 2008 season. Once they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, they were going to sign him no matter what. So they offered him the most money for any pitcher in history and when he waited and waited for more because it was going to cost a lot to pry him from going home to the West Coast, they offered him even more. They did so because they needed an ace.

For the three seasons before Sabathia became a Yankee, Chien-Ming Wang was the Yankees’ No. 1 starter. Whether or not he was an “ace” was debated each and every start even though he won 19 games in both 2006 and 2007 and had started the Yankees’ only win in the 2006 ALDS against Detroit in Game 1. But in the 2007 ALDS, Wang gave the “not an ace” crowd all the fuel they would need in any debate when he got rocked in Game 1 of the ALDS and again in Game 4 with a chance to send the series back to Cleveland for Game 5.

The following season, Wang’s career would never be the same when in the middle of a five-inning shutout of the Astros, he hurt his foot running the bases. The Yankees were forced to put Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson(!) into the rotation for the rest of the season and missed the playoffs and Sabathia got his seven-year contract and $161 million.

To me, Wang was a No. 1, but he wasn’t an ace. When his bowling-bowl sinker wasn’t working, he wasn’t working. He couldn’t adjust on the fly and grind through a start without his best stuff and we saw it on the biggest stage in the 2007 ALDS when he allowed 12 earned runs in 5 2/3 innings over those two disastrous starts. Yes, his 2006 and 2007 seasons were underrated and underappreciated with back-to-back 19-win seasons, but he was given an average of 5.70 runs per start in 2006 (from a team that should have won the World Series) and an average of 6.47 runs per start in 2007. Kei Igawa might have won 19 games in 2007 if he had gotten that type of run support, or if he had actually been on the team and not in Triple-A.

But when it came to the Yankees’ expensive left-hander, it was the opposite. Sabathia and “ace” were synonymous for his first four seasons with the Yankees. From 2009-2012, Sabathia went 74-29 with a 3.22 ERA in the regular season and 7-2 with a 3.50 ERA in the postseason. In 2013, all of those regular-season and postseason innings finally started to catch up with Sabathia, his velocity began to diminish and he went 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA. The Yankees missed the postseason for the first time since they signed Sabathia and that coupled with the Red Sox winning the World Series destroyed the Yankees’ payroll plans. They once again needed an ace, so they turned turned to the free-agent market and gave Masahiro Tanaka and his zero career major league starts a seven-year, $155 million deal, which was nearly identical to Sabathia’s originial Yankees deal.

On Jan. 23, 2014, I wrote The Mystery of Mashiro Tanaka to pump the brakes on everyone who assumed Tanaka’s success in Japan would translate to the majors. With more than two months until Tanaka would actually pitch in a regular-season game, I said:

I’m not ready to give Tanaka the potential “ace” status that so many other people are willing to even without knowing what will happen when he pitches in the majors.

For now, I’ll have to spend the next 10 weeks imagining how Tanaka will pitch for the Yankees because for now, it’s the best anyone can do.

I was right to take a wait-and-see approach with Tanaka, but everyone who assumed greatness all along had a headstart on falling in love with Tanaka. Through Tanaka’s first 16 starts, he was 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA and the Yankees were 12-4 in his starts. But then after getting hit around by Minnesota and Cleveland in July, he landed on the disabled list with an elbow injury that took nearly every orthopedic surgeon’s opinion to come to the conclusion that he needed rest and rehab over surgery.

In 2015, we saw what life was like post-elbow injury for Tanaka with a drop in velocity and strikeouts and with another early-season trip to the disabled list for an elbow injury. I spent every day waiting to find out that Tanaka would be out for a year-plus due to needing Tommy John surgery. The old New York media tried to play doctor and suggest that Tanaka should just get it over with and get surgery, which was still not recommended by doctors, acting as if getting Tommy John surgery has been 100 percent successful for all pitchers who have undergone it.

Tanaka finished the season 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts and though at times it seemed like he would never be an “ace” or a real No. 1 again, he was given the ball for the one-game playoff and he turned a solid start: 5 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 2 HR. It was good, but not good enough, though in reality, nothing would have been good enough. It didn’t matter if Tanaka pitched nine shutout innings, gave the start he did or got rocked, that Yankees team wasn’t going to score that game.

This season, Tanaka has learned how to pitch in his post-elbow injury career and with his elbow problem, if it’s even a problem anymore. He’s 12-4 (and has no-decisions in five starts in which he pitched at least six innings and gave up two earned runs or less) with a 3.11 ERA and the Yankees are 21-7 in his starts and 50-58 in all other games. In his 28 starts, he has allowed two earned runs or less in 21 and has pitched at least six innings in 22. He has one loss since July 27, and in the middle of this late-season postseason push, the Yankees have won his last six starts. He’s already thrown a career-high 179 1/3 innings and has at least five starts left if he stays healthy. (Knock on all the wood in your house.) If Masahiro Tanaka isn’t an ace, then the term shouldn’t exist. If Masahiro Tanaka isn’t an ace then who is?

There’s one Clayton Kershaw and he isn’t just an ace, he’s on pace to be the best pitcher in the history of baseball. The history of baseball. Everyone else who is considered an ace is in a tier below him and that includes Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta and Chris Sale and Jose Fernandez and Max Scherzer, and it includes David Price and Felix Hernandez when they were still great, and it includes pre-2013 CC Sabathia. Tanaka is in that tier.

Tanaka has a career 3.14 ERA and .698 winning percentage in 72 starts, in which the Yankees are 50-22 (they are 192-196 in all other games since Tanaka joined the team). He has been their best pitcher for nearly three seasons and has lived up to his $155 million deal. He’s not just a front-end starter, he’s not just an elite starting pitcher and he’s not just a No. 1. He’s an ace.