The question arises, not always out loud, after every win.
“But what happens tomorrow?”
Yes, the Yankees may have won, but what happens on the next day? Do they continue their winning ways, or do they wake up in a cold sweat of doubt and ineptitude? Do they build on the progress that was made, or do the Yankees stumble two steps back after taking a step forward?
On one night, the Yankees tallied 20 hits. The next, they were shut out by a middling starter and a middling bullpen. There is no rhyme or reason, no method to the dull aching madness of chronic mediocrity. There is only the next win, and the guessing over when the next loss will occur. Given the volatile nature of nearly the entire team, especially the starting rotation, there is one day each turn through the group that things can remain relatively calm. Rather quietly, Masahiro Tanaka has been one of the best starters in the American League.
He doesn’t have the gaudy strikeout numbers of Chris Sale, or the velocity of Danny Salazar. He doesn’t have the novelty factor of Steven Wright, and lacks the robotic malice of Corey Kluber. What he does have is a 3.23 ERA, and the honor of being the best junkballer in the world this side of Bartolo Colon.
The phrase “junkballer” often has a negative connotation. It conjures up images of an old man beyond his prime, throwing trick breaking balls and praying that he doesn’t get taken into the third deck. They don’t have wipeout stuff or inspire fear when they take the mound. They’re lucky to make it through five innings. In a world that fetishizes velocity and the Noah Syndergaard slider, Tanaka is an aberration. He rarely tops 90 MPH, and has almost entirely scrapped his four-seam fastball. Everything that he throws moves and dips and ducks. The word “overpower” is not in his pitcher’s lexicon. Yet there he is, marching on. There may be clunkers and missteps (five earned runs given up to Detroit in June, six to Kansas City in May), but almost every starter is guilty of this. There are no perfect ledgers.
Tanaka was always a junkballer of sorts, even when he was throwing a four-seamer. He didn’t lean on the pitch as his bread and butter as many do. It was always his weakest pitch, the one that would frequently be hit with authority over the fence. Because it wasn’t fooling anyone, his fastball is now a high-80’s/low-90’s sinker. The splitter is still his hallmark out pitch.
It seems that there will still be endless questions about Tanaka’s capacity to pitch on regular rest. He’s undoubtedly performed better with an extra day between starts this year. We don’t know if this trend will continue, and the lack of velocity will further the narrative regardless. There will always be those who try to cast doubt onto Tanaka because of how different he is. There’s no heat, no singular wipeout pitch. There’s no comforting sense of familiarity to help judge him by.
They will talk and talk until their throats turn hoarse and the papers run out of ink.
His last start in Cleveland was an ugly one. That doesn’t change the fact that Tanaka is one of the great arms in this league, and certainly had a case to make the All-Star team. He was passed over for deserving candidates, and there’s no fault in that. There’s no fault in falling just a hair short of such an honor.
The Yankees are done. They may be .500, but there’s nothing left for them to attain this year but hauls for veteran players. Because of the outgoing talent and age of the roster, the second half will almost surely be worse than the first. There will be less to be excited about, less for the team to do than play spoiler to those who have set their eyes on October.
Masahiro Tanaka will simply keep plugging away through it all. Just as quietly as he did in the first half, Tanaka will be effective and beguiling. Without the big fastball, without the highlight shows drooling over him, he will continue to give the Yankees a chance to win every time he takes the mound.
There are few commodities in baseball more valuable than a pitcher who can truly claim to do that. Mashairo Tanaka is one of the very few truly great players left on the roster. His starts demand your attention, as do his statistics. Yankees fans would do to remember that when times get truly thin in the coming months.
Photo: Jake Roth/USA Today Sports