“Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was 1-1 with a 1.74 ERA this spring. More importantly, he remained healthy, despite the partially torn ligament in his elbow.
But scouts contacted by the Daily News weren’t impressed with Tanaka’s stuff.
“I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt based on what he did last year,” one Major League scout said. “But would I be worried based on what I’ve seen lately? Yeah, I’d have to be a little worried. … He’s either saving himself for the season or he’s protecting that elbow a little bit, because his fastball has been around 89-90 (mph), with no life on it today. Two-seamer or four-seamer, it was flat and hittable.”
On the other end of the phone, Tom Seaver is talking pitching as he tramps around the vines at his Napa Valley winery. He’s curious about Masahiro Tanaka, wants to know how tall he is and wants to talk more about Tanaka’s fabulous control.
“What’s his strikeout-to-walk ratio?” the three-time Cy Young Award winner asks.
Told it is 7.06, well higher than Seaver’s career-best 4.74, Seaver’s voice drops to a hush. “Wow,” the Mets great says. “Wow.”
Tanaka, the Yankees’ ace, is authoring a remarkable season, one that will be etched in baseball history if he keeps it up. Questions swirled about Tanaka as he entered his first year in the majors, about how he would adjust to a new league, a new culture, a new life. There are questions still, but the scope of them has changed with the same abrupt movement of his plunging splitter.
Where would the Yankees be without him? Will he start the All-Star Game? Will he finish with one of the greatest pitching seasons New York has ever seen and win the city’s 12th Cy Young Award? Can he be the AL MVP?
Are we watching something historic?
Tanaka is 11-1 with a 1.99 ERA entering his Old Timer’s Day start Sunday against the Orioles at the Stadium. He leads the AL in wins, ERA and baseball-reference.com’s WAR (3.9) for pitchers and is on the leaderboard in multiple other categories.
The only New Yorkers to have a higher strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio than Tanaka’s current mark of 10.2 were Dwight Gooden in 1984 (11.39) and David Cone (10.25) in 1997. Bret Saberhagen (11.0) in 1994 is the only local to have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Tanaka’s. His WHIP (0.953) is better than Gooden’s in ’85 and only a few ticks behind Ron Guidry’s 0.946 in the lefty’s tremendous 1978 season (see the stats on the right).
Albert Pujols, one of the game’s best hitters, raved about Tanaka to Yankee bench coach Tony Pena after facing him earlier this season. “Pujols told me his splitter just disappears,” Pena recalls. “When a great hitter like that makes that kind of comment, you have done something great.”
I think he can have one of the great seasons that we’ve seen in a long time.
If Tanaka does win the AL Cy Young Award, it would be the first by a New York pitcher since R.A. Dickey in 2012 and the first by a Yankee since Roger Clemens in 2001. At the very least, Tanaka’s year could spark fascinating cross-era debate when held up against other pitchers, such as a couple of Fords — Russ, who was 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA for the 1910 Yankees or Whitey, who was 25-4 with a 3.21 ERA for the 1961 Yanks.
Gooden, who was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA in his magical 1985, season, was sitting in seats behind home plate at Citi Field on May 14 when Tanaka threw a four-hit shutout against the Mets. Gooden loves to watch pitchers and the way they work and what he saw that night made him want to see every one of Tanaka’s starts.
“This year could really be special,” says Gooden, who topped his 17-9, 2.60 ERA rookie campaign in ‘84 with one of baseball’s best-ever seasons in 1985. “It’s a long season, a lot of things can happen, but I can’t really see him dropping off that much, just the way he pitches. And he has so many pitches.
“I think he can have one of the great seasons that we’ve seen in a long time.”
Tanaka will never top Jack Chesbro’s probably-unbreakable record of 41 wins, which some say is only 40, for the 1904 New York Highlanders, who later became the Yankees. Coming anywhere near Christy Mathewson’s four 30-win seasons, including a 37-11 mark in 1908, is unrealistic, too. The game has just changed too much.
But could Tanaka match Guidry, who was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA in 1978, or Don Newcombe, the NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1956?
Could Tanaka approach Seaver’s 1971, the season the Hall of Famer calls his best? Seaver was 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA and a career-best 289 strikeouts, though he did not win the Cy Young Award. “That was a better year, from a pitching standpoint, than when I won 25 games in 1969,” Seaver says.
“My strikeout-to-walk ratio was just obnoxious,” Seaver adds, recalling his 4.74 mark. Not as obnoxious as Tanaka’s, which is 2.32 points better right now.
Gooden, Guidry and Dickey, who was 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and led the NL with 230 strikeouts in his Cy Young year for the Mets, can provide a window into what it’s like to be in the middle of an amazing pitching season.
First of all, the wait in between starts seems to be a lot longer, Gooden says. “When you’re that locked in, it feels like two weeks.
“The night I pitched, it was my show and I wanted to put on a good one,” Gooden adds. “Gary (Carter, his catcher) was a big part of that. He wanted me to dominate and that became my goal. Not just to win, to dominate.
“Opponents are aware of the season you’re having, so they turn it up a notch and you know that.
“Now to hear players compared to my season, like (the Mets’ Matt) Harvey last year and Tanaka this year, it’s just great to hear. I’d like to be in the Hall of Fame, but that didn’t happen. But there were a lot of things I accomplished. When I hear that guys are being compared to my year 30 years later, it makes me appreciate the career I did have.”
While it’s all happening, Dickey remembers, it’s hard to properly appreciate it.
Mets GM Sandy Alderson once told him, “ ‘Hey, I hope you’re enjoying this. You need to.’ ”
“At the time, I was saying to myself, ‘What is he talking about?
Of course it’s fun,’ ” Dickey says.
“But I really wasn’t able to celebrate it because you’re just on to the next game. Baseball is relentless in that respect, so all my appreciation for it came after the season when I could reflect. But you are consumed with the moment.
“I’m sure Tanaka is thinking about whoever his next start is against, not, ‘Hey, I’ve had a good run and I’ll probably win the Cy Young Award.’ ”
Early in the ’78 season, Guidry knew his teammates were “looking at me different, as the guy who would keep everything together,” Guidry says. “I can see the same thing now when I watch Tanaka on TV.”
Gooden got to know Guidry when both worked for the Yankees and, one spring training, they talked about their incredible seasons over steaming bowls of Guidry’s homemade gumbo. “He told me that he felt locked in, every game that year,” Gooden says. “And even the ones he didn’t have his best stuff, he felt if he could get through a few innings, his best stuff would show up.”
Tanaka’s best stuff has mostly shown up all season. He might not reach new heights in complete games — Guidry and Gooden each threw 16, for instance in their best seasons — or innings that others have thrown in their big seasons, but all 14 of his starts are quality starts, the longest streak in the majors. The Yanks are 12-2 in those games.
So can he join the single-season luminaries? “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen when it hasn’t happened yet, because you just don’t know,” Guidry says.
“But the way it’s looking right now, he’s well on his way to doing it.”
Adds Seaver: “I’m a bit of a doubting Thomas — let me see what’s going on three months from now. Can he keep it together? Half a season doesn’t do it.
“But he sure must know what he’s doing.”
* * *
Masahiro Tanaka is having a season for the ages in New York. Here’s a look at how he ranks against some of the city’s best in four key SABR metics:
Top 5 seasons in N.Y. history in K/BB ratio, according to baseball-reference.com. Pitchers are qualifiers for the ERA title from 1901-2014.
1. Bret Saberhagen, Mets, 1994
11.00, second all-time.
Top 5 seasons in NY history in ERA+, a statistic that measures a pitcher against the rest of the league, including ballpark adjustments. All pitchers are qualifiers for the ERA title from 1901-2014, according to baseball-reference.com
Masahiro Tanaka tamed the highest-scoring team in the majors and the New York Yankees stopped a four-game skid, beating Oakland 2-1 Thursday and ending the Athletics’ five-game winning streak.
Facing the A’s for the first time, Tanaka (9-1) got an early jolt when John Jaso homered as the second batter in the game. But that was the only run Tanaka allowed in six innings, and he left with an AL-leading 2.02 ERA.
David Robertson worked the ninth for his 13th save in 15 chances, helped by a lucky bounce.
Stephen Vogt singled with one out and pinch-runner Craig Gentry stole second. Alberto Callaspo followed with a hard grounder that deflected off Robertson’s leg, and first baseman Mark Teixeira corralled the carom and flipped to the pitcher covering the bag for an out. Pinch-hitter Derek Norris looked at strike three for the final out.
Shortly after he was inserted for speed and defense, Yankees right fielder Ichiro Suzuki blunted Oakland’s bid to tie it in the eighth with a sliding catch on Brandon Moss’ liner into the gap with runners on first and second. After a wild pitch, Adam Warren struck out Yoenis Cespedes to end the inning.
Brett Gardner hit a leadoff homer in the third against Drew Pomeranz (5-3) for a 2-1 lead.
Jacoby Ellsbury almost hit a two-run homer for the Yankees. After Derek Jeter singled in the first, Ellsbury hit a drive to the top of the right-field wall, hustled around the bases and slid into second.
The umpires, however, ruled it a home run and Ellsbury got up and trotted to the plate and into the dugout. A’s manager Bob Melvin challenged the call and it was overturned to a double.
Carlos Beltran then struck out to finish the inning. On the disabled list since May 15 because of a bone spur in his right elbow, Beltran was activated and went 0 for 3.
Tanaka gave up five hits, struck out four and walked one. He retired 10 straight batters after Jaso’s homers and left several A’s taking tentative swings.
As Tanaka has demonstrated during his first 12 starts in the majors — at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs, all of them — he toughens up when there’s trouble. The Japanese rookie twice escaped two-out, two-on jams, and threw 104 pitches overall.
Alfonso Soriano broke an 0-for-16 slump with an RBI single in the second, set up when Brian McCann singled and continued to second as the ball skipped past Moss in left field for an error.
Soriano later wound up with a gift double when center fielder Coco Crisp lost a routine fly in a bright sun.
Pomeranz pitched a season-high seven innings, giving up six hits and one earned run.
NOTES: New York went 2-6 on its homestand vs. Minnesota, Seattle and Oakland. … The A’s have homered in 13 straight games, connecting 23 times in that span. … Tanaka had gone five starts without allowing a homer. … Cespedes was Oakland’s DH. Melvin gave the star OF a lighter day after hitting 2 HRs Wednesday night. Melvin also said Cespedes was working through some shoulder issue. … Crisp returned to the lineup after getting a day off to rest his ailing neck. … RF Vogt made a nice catch in his first major league start in the outfield. He’s normally a catcher, and Melvin said he wanted another lefty bat vs. Tanaka. … Seven veterans of the D-Day invasion were honored at home plate before the game. … There was a pregame moment of silence for former Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, who died Wednesday at 83. A video tribute before the third inning drew cheers. … Oakland LHP Tommy Milone (3-3, 3.60) starts Friday night at Baltimore vs. LHP Wei-Yin Chen (6-2, 4.26). … Yankees rookie RHP Chase Whitley (0-0, 2.37) starts Friday night at Kansas City vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie (2-5, 4.00).
Masahiro Tanaka allowed one unearned run in eight innings in the Yankees’ 3-1 win over the Twins Saturday at the Stadium. Photo: Paul J. Bereswill
Masahiro Tanaka further established himself as the Yankees’ ace in a 3-1 win over Minnesota.
Too bad he can’t play first base.
Tanaka’s latest brilliant performance was overshadowed by Mark Teixeira’s sixth-inning exit with soreness in his surgically repaired right wrist. He admitted the pain began in Friday’s game, but he tried to play through it.
It was just Teixeira’s second game since sitting out three in a row with pain in the joint, adding more uncertainty to the position for the Yankees. He received a cortisone shot which the Yankees hope finally takes care of the problem.
“We already tried the rest and four days didn’t work,” Teixeira said. “That’s why the shot’s the next best thing. … If the shot doesn’t work, then I’m worried. We’ll go back to the drawing board.”
That’s the last thing the Yankees want, and manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman said they remained confident the first baseman will recover.
“It’s concerning in the short term,” Girardi said. “As far as the long term, we feel he’s going to be healthy. … I anticipate giving him Sunday and Monday off and see Tuesday. If we have to make a decision, we’ll make a decision.”
For now, however, that decision doesn’t seem to include finding another regular first baseman.
“We don’t need an everyday first baseman because I believe we have one,” Cashman said after the game. “He just needs a timeout here for the last week, but I met with the player and the physician and everyone thinks he’s going to be OK. Throughout the year, he’ll have to have some rest occasionally and get some treatment.”
For one day, at least, the Yankees were able to survive the injury, thanks not only to Tanaka, but to the struggling Brian McCann.
The catcher’s eighth-inning double drove in the winning run in The Bronx.
Tanaka (8-1) didn’t appear to have his best stuff and still managed to toss eight innings, giving up just an unearned run in the first inning. He surrendered four hits, a pair of walks and struck out nine. He and David Robertson were also able to withstand three errors.
“Obviously, for the offense, there’s good times and bad times,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “As a pitcher, you’re trying to go out there to get as many zeroes up as possible on the scoreboard.”
Just as he had when asked on Friday, Tanaka shied away from saying he’s the ace of the staff.
“I don’t feel like I’m the ace,” Tanaka said.
“I think he relishes that role,” Girardi said before the game. “He has a very high expectation of himself. He’ll throw seven innings and give up one run and be mad he didn’t throw a complete game. I think that’s the role of an ace, the responsibility they take.”
Tanaka was good enough to make up for another sluggish effort from an offense that was even weaker without Teixeira.
Robertson finished the game to pick up his 12th save.
After being limited to one run by Ricky Nolasco on Friday, the Yankees again mustered just one run against Kevin Correia, who entered the game with a league-worst 6.34 ERA.
In six innings, Correia permitted just a solo home run by Yangervis Solarte in the fourth that tied the game at 1-1.
Tanaka held down the Twins until the Yankees scored again.
After grounding into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the first, McCann came through with a run-scoring double in the eighth.
Jacoby Ellsbury followed his one-out single with a stolen base and advanced to third when catcher Josmil Pinto’s throw got into center field. Brian Roberts, who pinch hit for Teixeira in the sixth, walked to bring up McCann and the catcher ripped his second double of the afternoon.
You could feel the energy elevate at Citi Field Wednesday night, as the Subway Series shifted boroughs and gave us a pitching matchup we might very well remember down the road.
The Yankees and Masahiro Tanaka prevailed, 4-0, climbing to 20-19 and knocking the Mets and Rafael Montero to 19-20, as the Yankees halted the Mets’ six-game Subway Series winning streak. The two young starting pitchers, the latter making his major-league debut and the former merely his Subway Series debut, displayed where they stand in their respective universes.
To the Yankees, Tanaka represents both salvation and diversion. To the Mets, Montero serves as a nice coming attraction.
The 25-year-old Tanaka stopped a four-game Yankees losing streak — the four games since he last pitched, in other words — by pitching his first career complete game and shutout. In raising his record to 6-0 in eight starts, he allowed just four hits to the previously red-hot Mets offense while walking none and striking out eight. He now has a remarkable 66 strikeouts and seven walks in 58 innings, leading the Yankees in the first and third categories as well as strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
Oh, and he also picked up his first major-league hit, a ground-ball single up the middle in the ninth.
“Yes, I knew that we were in a little funk, losing four in a row,” Tanaka, who threw 114 pitches, said through his interpreter. “I also knew we hadn’t won a Subway Series in a while. So yes, I did want to go out there and try to get a win for us.”
“Stopping a losing streak. Knowing that we needed a win, bad. We needed distance, bad,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, in listing Tanaka’s accomplishments Wednesday.
“You look up, he’s in the fifth inning, he’s thrown only 57 pitches. He did what he had to do for our club. He really stepped up.”
The 23-year-old Montero, meanwhile, largely validated the Mets’ decision to baptize him by fire. He kept his club in the game by allowing three runs and five hits over six innings, walking two and striking out three.
Essentially, Montero gave up a pair of solo homers — Yangervis Solarte in the fourth and Mark Teixeira in the sixth. The Yankees’ first run, in the second inning, came courtesy of a boneheaded decision by Eric Young, Jr. who dove to catch Brian Roberts’ line drive and missed so badly the ball sailed past him, allowing Roberts to tally a two-out triple and score Solarte from second.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Mets manager Terry Collins said of his rookie.
Because Dillon Gee went on the disabled list Wednesday due to a strained right latissimus dorsi, Montero now finds himself as an increasingly important part of the Mets’ starting rotation, with Jacob deGrom set to make his big-league debut in Thursday’s Subway finale against the Yankees’ Chase Whitley (who also will make his major-league debut. Whew!).
Not long ago, we would’ve tabbed both Montero and deGrom as more likely to help the Mets out of the bullpen than in the rotation. Yet needs change quickly, especially this season as an injury epidemic seems to be striking the pitching community throughout the industry.
Noah Syndergaard should join Montero and deGrom on the Mets’ pitching staff in a month or so, providing the Mets with hope they can make a run at .500, if not the 90-win goal that general manager Sandy Alderson established. Having written that, there’s a reasonable chance that this promising trio won’t combine to match the value the ridiculously good Tanaka is providing to the Yankees.
“I think you could argue he’s been as valuable as anyone on our team, with what he’s done so far this year,” Girardi said.
Since Tanaka’s last start May 9, the Yankees lost CC Sabathia to the disabled list (right knee), saw Carlos Beltran go down with a potentially serious right elbow injury and had to reduce the en fuego Mark Teixeira’s playing time as the first baseman battled a left groin issue. They also suffered the indignity of watching the Mets take to Yankee Stadium like a phony takes to Hollywood, as the Mets rang up 21 runs in two games against the Yankees’ thinned-out pitching staff in the Bronx.
Collins lamented the Mets hit a few long flyouts to right field in this game, with David Wright (first inning) and Daniel Murphy (fourth) both sending balls to the warning track.
“We were in the wrong part of town,” the Mets’ manager said, as both probably would have been homers at Yankee Stadium. Yet the Yankees faced the same dimensions and managed to reach the seats twice.
Tanaka, signed for $155 million over seven years plus a $20 million posting fee to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, needed less than two months to become the Yankees’ ace. It really isn’t close. With him, the Yankees are in the mix for the American League East title. Without him, they’d be challenging the Rays for the division basement.
The Mets need Montero to enhance their future. The Yankees need Tanaka to preserve their present. As usually happens in New York, present trumped future on Wednesday night. More important for New York baseball, both left us wanting to see more.
The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP ImagesWill Tanaka or A-Rod go to spring training with the Yanks? Hal would like to know, too.
Spring training is still six weeks away, but today could mark the start of a tumultuous week in New York Yankees history. For one thing, the bidding war for the services of Masahiro Tanaka will begin in earnest now that the holiday season is behind us and Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, has returned from a family vacation. A team source told me today that there still has been no significant contact between the Yankees and Close, but that is expected to change soon.
For another, the Yankees could well find out if they will be on the hook for Alex Rodriguez‘s $25 million salary for 2014, which could have a huge impact on how much they spend the remainder of this offseason. Then again, it could have no effect at all if Hal Steinbrenner decides to channel his inner George and blow right past the self-imposed $189 million payroll ceiling. The decision on A-Rod’s appeal could come any day, although as MLB CEO Rob Manfred told me last week, there is no real timetable on arbitrator Fredric Horowitz to render his decision. It could come today, tomorrow, or a month from now.
Who is most likely to open 2014 with the Yankees?
(Total votes: 4,225)
And on Wednesday, we will learn if a couple of ex-Yankees, Tim Raines and Mike Mussina, get the call to Cooperstown when the Hall of Fame announces the results of this year’s balloting. Both Rock and Moose got my vote. Roger Clemens did not.
Back on the subject of Tanaka, his fate could very much decide the fate of Brett Gardner, as well. If Tanaka signs with the Yankees, the club may well hold on to Gardner as a fourth outfielder. If not, they might shop Gardner for a starting pitcher.
It all begins today, so check in periodically throughout the week.