Masahiro Tanaka was the best pitcher in the entire Japanese archipelago last season. He went 24-0, posted an ERA under two and won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. He signed a $155 million contract with the Yankees in the off-season at just 25-years-old. Thus far, it seems the Yankees made a sound investment. Tanaka has been brilliant. Including his time in Japan, he has not lost a regular season start since August 2012. He is 5-0 with a 2.57 ERA and 58 strikeouts. He is baffling hitters and making the switch between leagues, countries and cultures look like child’s play. It’s true that he is not perfect. He went 0-for-3 on Friday with three strikeouts, just to prove he was human. But he has been every bit the ace the Yankees hoped they were signing just a few months ago.
The Yankees themselves seem like a better team when Tanaka is on the mound. They seem to get the big hit. They seem to play better defense. They seem to take the extra base. It is as if Masahiro Tanaka makes the team around him better. And that is exactly what it is. When you haven’t lost a game in forever, and you are dominating major league hitters on nights when you don’t have your best stuff, you gain a confidence that flows throw you to your teammates. Right now, the Yankees are riding high on Tanaka whenever he takes the mound. The entire team feels as it they can’t lose.
Tanaka is not, of course, the first pitcher to breathe life into his teammates inspiring them to greatness. It was not long ago we thought the same way of CC Sabathia and Roger Clemens before him. There have been terrific Yankees’ pitchers riding a hot streak in which it seemed like they could not lose if they tried, such as David Cone, David Wells and Jimmy Key. Steve Carlton is the best example of willing his team to victory. In 1972, Carlton won 27 games. His team, the Phillies, won 59 total. No player in the modern era has ever won a greater percentage of his team’s games. On any day Lefty pitched, they were as good a team any in the National League. However, this type of run is not limited to Hall of Famers like Carlton. In 2005, a journeyman pitcher by the name of Aaron Small went 10-0 with a 3.20 ERA for the Yankees. He would be out of baseball within two years, but for that brief few months in the 2005 season, he was among the best in baseball. What remains to be seen about Tanaka and what can only be seen over time is whether this is a brief shining moment, or the beginning of a much grander story in the annals of the national pastime.