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Revisiting Masahiro Tanaka’s tenure and why he needs to return

Seven years ago, one of the biggest headlines in MLB free agency was who was going to land Masahiro Tanaka. The then 25-year-old was posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. Coming out of Japan, Tanaka was known for his splitter and was viewed as a top of the rotation starter. 

As we know, the Yankees ended up winning the sweepstakes inking Tanaka to a seven year $155 million contract. Fast forward, the 32-year-old has done everything and more for the organization. From 2015-2017, he was the ace until Luis Severino briefly claimed that role, then Gerrit Cole arrived in New York. During his time with the Yankees, Tanaka posted a 3.74 ERA with an 18.9 WAR and 1.13 WHIP. 

Those numbers are very solid, however, when the postseason came around, he was a different animal. With the exception of the 2020 playoffs, Tanaka has always showed his best stuff come October. His Game 5 start in the 2017 ALCS and his Game 1 start in the 2019 ALCS are prime examples of how Tanaka took the next step under the bright lights. In those two starts, he did not allow a run and showed Houston that the Yankees would not go down easily.

Coming into 2020, Tanaka had a 1.76 career postseason ERA, which ranked 12th all time among pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in the playoffs. This ranked 2nd in Yankees history only behind the GOAT, Mariano Rivera. In his two starts in the 2020 playoffs, Tanaka surrendered 11 runs and 13 hits and had a 12.38 ERA in eight innings. Although he did not meet expectations, those two starts should not be factor in re-signing him or not. Following the 2020 playoffs, he still has a respectable 3.33 career postseason ERA along with a 0.98 WHIP and a .194 AVG against hitters.

The Yankees need to bring back Tanaka

Tanaka is still very important to this rotation. He can still provide reliable depth in the rotation as a three or four starter. Bringing back Tanaka provides a sense of security in the rotation — you know when you give him the ball, he will always give everything he has. If the Yankees let him walk, there will be a void in the rotation that already has holes in it.

2020 was a tough year for pitchers all around, mostly due to the fact they did not have much time to prepare for the shortened season. Pitchers typically have six weeks to prepare from the day when pitchers and catchers report to Opening Day. Last season, pitchers rushed to get ready, and we saw the impact in numbers around the league.

Tanaka’s steady production throughout the years should earn him a new contract. The Yankees were willing to give JA Happ a two year $34 million contract with a vesting option for a third year for some insane reason two years ago. With Happ gone and freeing up $17 million for next season, they should offer Tanaka a similar contract. Needless to say, there is much better value in giving Tanaka a similar contract compared to Happ.

Tanaka appears to love being with the Yankees judging by his Instagram posts as the season wrapped up. After his last regular season start, he posted a picture of him holding up his new uniform when he was signed in 2014 while stating he would fight back when the postseason starts. If the Yankees bring back Tanaka and add another established starter in front of him, there would arguably not be a better three or four starter in the league than Tanaka.