Masahiro Tanaka has a decision to make at the end of the season and his performance on the mound will likely dictate whether he opts out of the final three seasons of his seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees. Will Tanaka finally put to rest the notion of whether he was an ace in 2016, and can he duplicate that effort in 2017?
How did Tanaka fare in 2016?
Tanaka was far and away the Yankees' top starter in 2016 and pushed himself into the American League Cy Young Award discussion in the process, finishing seventh in the voting. Tanaka threw the most innings of his major league career (199 2/3) and finished with a 14-4 record, 3.07 ERA (142 ERA+), 1.07 WHIP, 165 strikeouts, and 36 walks.
He was stingier with regard to allowing home runs in 2016 (0.99 HR/9), something that had plagued him in 2015 (1.5 HR/9). However, Tanaka's strikeout rate dropped for the second-straight season (7.4 K/9).
Most importantly, Tanaka was a stopper and won big games down the stretch when the Yankees were surprisingly still in the playoff hunt in the second week of September. He pitched like an ace during that span, winning seven of his final nine starts without a loss, giving the club the feeling that they had a chance to win each time he took to the mound. During the period, Tanaka pitched to a 2.28 ERA across 59 1/3 innings, struck out nearly a batter per inning, and held opponents to a .228 batting average and .642 OPS.
How will Tanaka fare in 2017?
Tanaka is essentially in his walk year, and with a season that replicates 2016, he would almost be assured of increasing his guaranteed salary across five or six seasons instead of the three years that will remain if he does not opt out of his current deal.
The "almost" refers to the partial tear in Tanaka's ulnar collateral ligament. Regardless of how well Tanaka has performed since he left Japan, prospective employers -- including the Yankees -- will have to think long and hard about the investment, knowing they could lose the right-hander for 12-1to-8 months if he has to undergo Tommy John surgery.
What does this have to do with Tanaka's potential in 2017? A good deal.
At 28 years old, Tanaka is still in the prime of his career. He did not shown any ill effects from the partial tear in his UCL in 2016. In fact, it can be argued that Tanaka has figured out exactly how to pitch like an ace regardless of the tear.
There is always the chance that the elbow ligament could blow, but there is nothing in Tanaka's performance or in last season's workload that makes me believe he's any more an injury risk than the next pitcher.
Despite popular belief, Tanaka's average four-seam fastball velocity has not diminished, but rather remained relatively flat. Tanaka arrived in 2014 with a four-seam fastball averaging 91.1 mph. It averaged 92.0 mph in 2015 and it sat at 91.6 mph on average in 2016. Tanaka's max velocity reached between 95-96 mph in each season.
The important change in Tanaka's pitching repertoire centers on his reliance on the four-seam fastball less frequently season to season. In my view, this is not because of velocity (again, he hasn't lost velocity at all), but rather because he recognized he was being beat on his four-seamer -- and his off-speed efforts simply produce better results.
Tanaka clearly has more confidence in his off-speed pitches, making the fastball a secondary pitch. In order of use, Tanaka threw the split-finger fastball, a slider, sinker, and cutter more often than the four-seamer in 2016. However, when he needed to dial up the heat, he demonstrated he could still hit 95+ on the radar gun. I would expect the fashion in which Tanaka attacks hitters will remain very similar in 2017.
Considering Tanaka's innings have increased year by year since arriving in the big leagues (despite the partial tear in his UCL) and the consistent production, it stands to reason that he can turn in another above-average to elite season approaching or eclipsing 200 innings. Such efforts will be necessary for the Yankees to remain competitive in the American League East, in light of the questions regarding the remainder of the club's staff.
The Yankees would relish Tanaka's MLB averages in 2017, understanding it would assist the club in the standings and make him a valuable commodity if they decide to try and trade him at the deadline (he has a full no-trade clause).
Tanaka has fully acclimated to pitching in the big leagues and has developed into a top-flight pitcher. His performance last season demonstrated he also thrives when called upon to carry the team. The desire to be the team's ace combined with the chance to substantially increase his guaranteed pay in the coming year makes Tanaka a good bet to be atop the rankings of starting pitchers in the American League at season's-end. In my view, where he pitches in 2018 is the bigger question.