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Hiro or Villian? Tanaka’s Struggles are a problem for the Surprising Yankees

The year began with high hopes for Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. The 28 year-old righty came into the 2017 campaign after posting a 14-4 record and a 3.07 ERA in 2016. One week ago, on Sunday Night Baseball, Tanaka allowed 8 runs in less than 2 innings, including 4 home runs. This outing can be forgiven by Yankees fans, as they were facing one of the most high-powered offenses in the MLB in the Astros. Saturday was a different story. The Yankees lost to the 4th place Tampa Bay Rays, and Tanaka once again was overpowered. In just three innings of work, the ace allowed 6 runs and 3 home runs. In 9 starts, Tanaka has allowed 13 home runs and has 35 earned runs. These numbers are not going to be good enough if the Yankees truly want to make a run at the AL East crown this year. Tanaka’s 5-3 record doesn’t look bad on paper, but the 6.56 ERA speaks for itself. That 6.56 ERA is 86th out of 88 starters in the AL that qualify, and in the month of May alone Tanaka has an eye-popping 10.50 ERA. The Yankees offense has helped the entire pitching staff, posting the 3rd most runs in the majors. The problem is the Yankees are in desperate need of a lights out starter that can give them scoreless innings when the offense isn’t producing.

Coming off of an elbow injury, Tanaka looked virtually unhittable in Spring Training. His fastball was hitting exactly the right locations to set-up the devastating two-strike splitter. The problem now? Missing location. A 92 MPH fastball right down broadway isn’t fooling any major league hitter, and neither is an 85 MPH slider that is poorly located. The result? 13 longballs allowed in just 9 starts. Tanaka’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) the past 3 seasons was 3.89, meaning he’ll win you about 4 games more than the average starting pitcher. In 2017, Tanaka’s WAR is 0. To put that into perspective with other aces, Chris Sale has a 2.7 WAR, which leads the league. Having a 0 WAR basically puts Tanaka’s value to that of a #5 guy in a rotation. In addition, his 35 earned runs leads the majors. Numbers wise, Tanaka may be the worst pitcher in the MLB right now.

So, is it all over for the Yankees ace? Not by a long shot. As proven in the first 3 seasons of his career, Tanaka has a knack for adjusting. Last year, Tanaka got hot towards the end and put himself into the Cy Young conversation. What might be helpful for the Yankees and Tanaka would be a mid-season pickup of a starting pitcher, maybe even an ace to take some of the burden off Tanaka. Taking over the #2 role in the rotation may produce better numbers for Tanaka due to some pressure being taken off. Reality is that Masahiro Tanaka can’t be an ace on a championship team. He can, however, be a huge piece in building that championship. If some pressure is taken off of him, the sky is the limit. As seen time after time in Major League Baseball, pitching wins championships. The pitching staff figuring it out plus that potent offense can be a winning formula in the Bronx.

Luke Owens
Luke Owens is an incoming freshman at SUNY Oswego that covers all sports, especially baseball and the New York Yankees. He has a weekly podcast covering all sports and also writes for MLB Mayhem and the Outcasts Podcast. Follow him on twitter @LukeTheKid3

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