Tanaka Is Still An Ace

Tanaka vs BAL III Before watching the sadness of what was a lousy offensive performance by the Yankees last night, I watched a little bit of Baseball Tonight on The MLB Network. Pedro Martinez and Dan Plesac were discussing the Matt Harvey situation. Plesac talked about every team having a "pecking order" with its starters and relief pitchers. The point made was that Harvey was #1 on the Mets' pecking order and they needed him. Masahiro Tanaka is still at the top of the Yankees' pecking order.

During this season, two other pitchers have been handed that spot by the fans and the media. Earlier in the season, Michael Pineda was dominant and he was the ace of the staff. In the second half of the season, that title went to Nathan Eovaldi (sigh). But all along--except for the seven starts he missed--Tanaka has been right there giving the Yankees a chance to win.

I will admit up front that I am going to "cherry pick" some numbers. I feel it is necessary because the current ways we have to rank pitchers are WAR and FIP. Both are skewed heavily by the three supposed outcomes a pitcher can control: homers, walks allowed and strikeouts. Tanaka's walks allowed, strikeouts and strikeout per walk ratios are all still in the elite category. But homers are another story. He has given up a ton of them. His 1.5 homers per nine rate (over 16% homer to fly ball ratio) is very high.

That one fact alone--and I am not dismissing its impact--drags Tanaka down, puts his FIP over four and knocks his WAR down a few pegs. Tanaka has a bit of a Phil Hughesian problem at Yankee Stadium III. On the road, Masahiro Tanaka has a 0.80 homer per nine rate. But at home, that rate jumps to 2.0 per nine. White giving up only six homers on the road, he has allowed fifteen at home.

All of his other stats both home and the road are nearly the same. But the homer rate pushes his ERA to over four at home and 3.26 on the road. And yet, here's the thing: He has won six of his twelve starts at home. Mike Mussina was once asked what defined a great pitcher and his answer was winning half of games started. That certainly works for Tanaka at home despite the homers.

But there are more numbers to (cherry) pick. The Yankees have won 66.6% of the games Tanaka has started this season (14 of 21). That is the exact same rate as Eovaldi and we all know about Eovaldi's run support. And that percentage makes sense since a full 71% of Masahiro Tanaka's starts have been quality starts. That is easily the best on the team*. Pineda is second at 50%.

*Luis Severino has a higher rate, but I cannot jump on that ship until he has 20+ starts instead of six.

Quality starts is not the most popular statistic around because you can have a 4.50 ERA and have a quality start. But it does give the team a chance to win by keeping things from getting out of hand. But perhaps I can give you a stat you'll like more.

Actually, I can give you several. Let's start with Game Score. Bill James and others came up with a way to rate a start with a 50 being average, below 50 as below average and above 50 as above average. The higher the number the better. Masahiro Tanaka's average Game Score is 57.4. Only Severino is higher among the starters. Pineda is at 52.3 and Eovaldi at 49.6.

Then there is WHIP, which is walks plus hits per innings pitched. Tanaka's WHIP is 1.015. Would you guess that rate is better than Chris Sale's? It's also better than Corey Kluber, Matt Harvey, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Archer and David Price. The next Yankee starter closest to Tanaka is Pineda at 1.230. A lot of Tanaka's success there is due to a hits per nine rate of only 7.4 per nine. Add that to his low walk rate and it's easy to see why.

Lastly, there needs to be a discussion of bullpen saving. One of the stories that goes a little under the radar is that the Yankees' bullpen gets pretty dicey before the eighth and ninth inning. The more those sixth and seven inning pitchers are exposed, the harder it is on the team. The deeper a starter can go, then, the better. Tanaka leads Yankee starters with 6.48 innings pitched per start. Pineda is at 6..09 and Eovaldi at 5.71.

With the instant stats and news during the season, it is easy to get wrapped up in what is happening lately. I have always felt that you cannot take a part of the season to sweeten the entire season. Stephen Drew might have been better this past month, but his SEASON has not been pretty at the plate. Eovaldi and Pineda have carried the team in flashes of brilliance that lasted a month or more. But if you look at the season as a whole, Masahiro Tanaka has been the consistent presence the Yankees have needed. All things considered health-wise, he is still the guy I give the ball to in Game One of a playoff series or wild card winner take all.

**UPDATE**  Baseballprospectus.com has a new pitching statistic they say is the best at evaluating pitchers. The stat is called DRA and according to that site's list of 718 pitchers, Tanaka ranks 26th, well ahead of Eovaldi and Pineda. See the list here if you have a paid account there.They adjust his WARP (their version of WAR) a full win higher than Fangraphs or Baseball-reference.com.