Pinstripe Preview: Masahiro Tanaka

Entering his fourth major league season with the New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka will once again be the unquestioned ace of a Yankees pitching staff full of question marks in 2017.  Tanaka has looked every bit the part so far this spring, pitching to a perfect 0.00 ERA over 13.1 innings across four starts.  Tanaka has also struck out 19 batters, walked just two, and allowed only three hits. He also anchored a combined no-hitter yesterday (March 17) against Detroit with lefties Chasen Shreve and Jordan Montgomery. For a Yankees starting rotation that will roll out Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, and then two of Luis Severino/Bryan Mitchell/Adam Warren/Chad Green/Luis Cessa this season, Tanaka's performance will be crucial to the Yankees success. 
Photo Credit: Butch Dill | USA TODAY Sports

If Tanaka can repeat or even build upon his success of the past three seasons, he'll not only keep the Yankees in contention all season, but also put himself in great position for a massive payday next winter, as it is expected he'll exercise the option in his contact come season's end.

2016 Review

In 2016, Masahiro Tanaka set a new MLB career high in both wins (14) and innings pitched (199.2) as he anchored the Yankees pitching staff throughout the season, ultimately finishing seventh in the American League Cy Young voting. Tanaka was able to keep his HR/9 low (1.0) but did see a slight drop in his K/9 - falling from 8.1 in 2015 to 7.4 in 2016. 

Make no mistake, Tanaka is still very much a strikeout pitcher, as he racked up 165 of them last season, but his signature split-finger fastball produced a ground ball percentage (GB%) of 48.2% - up from 47.0% in 2015.  The righty also achieved a new career low in HR/FB% of just 12.0%, signifying that he's pitched more to contact of late, but able to keep the ball in the yard.

2016 also marked the first full season for Masahiro Tanaka in the Major Leagues, as he was able to avoid the disabled list and make 31 starts for the Yankees.  While Tanaka's partial torn UCL might be seen as a ticking time bomb, it is certainly encouraging that he was able to stay healthy all season last year, and the Yankees should expect the same from him this year as he will now be two full seasons removed from the injury.

2017 Outlook

15 days from today, Tanaka will take the ball for the Yankees on Opening Day against the Tampa Bay Rays to kick off the 2017 season.  The Yankees hope is that Tanaka, along with the seemingly much improved Michael Pineda, will form a strong one-two punch at the top of the rotation and propel the Yankees to success this season.

ZiPS currently has Tanaka projected at 11-9 with a 3.64 ERA this season to go along with a 1.14 WHIP, 170 strikeouts and 188 innings pitched.  Ideally, Tanaka's W-L record would be better than that, but I can't see the Yankees being too disappointed if their ace pitched to a mid-3 ERA this season with strong peripherals.

It should be noted, however, that should the Yankees fall out of contention quickly and Tanaka continues to pitch well, that he might immediately become a trade chip at the deadline that could bring back another strong package of prospects to further stock baseball's second best farm system (per ESPN's Keith Law).  Interestingly enough, the Yankees could look to do the same thing with Tanaka that they did with Aroldis Chapman last season; that being dealing him at the deadline with the intention of just re-signing him in the offseason.  The only wrench in the plan this time around is that Tanaka isn't guaranteed to exercise his opt-out clause, although it is highly expected he will do so, especially if he pitches well and stays healthy this year.

Ultimately, I don't see the Yankees moving their ace and I would expect more of the same from him in 2017.  Tanaka should once again be counted on to take the ball every fifth day and dominate on the mound as he has in his first three big league seasons.  If the Yankees can get enough offense from the kids and the rest of the rotation holds up (notably, a big if), then the Yankees will be vying for a playoff spot until the last week of the season and Tanaka will once again be in position to pitch a potential Wild Card Playoff Game.

Article by: Andrew Natalizio

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