Every pitcher has a bad start or two over the course of a season. In thirty starts, a pitcher can expect to have his good stuff for only about 10 games; it’s what he does in those twenty starts with sub-par command that separates the good pitchers from the rest. Masahiro Tanaka is no exception. He will have bad starts and slumps. The problem for the Yankees, is that they simply cannot afford for Tanaka to have slumps and bad starts.
Tanaka started the season 11-1 and looked unhittable. Since then however, he has gone 1-3, including last night’s shelling at the hands of the Indians, in which Tanaka gave up a career-high five earned runs, and ten hits. His ERA has gone up a half run in the last three and half weeks. This sudden swoon towards the end of the first half could be explained by many different factors. Tanaka may be fatigued from pitching every fifth day instead of every sixth. The league may be starting to figure out the Japanese right-hander. Or maybe it is just a case of a pitcher going through a bit of a slump.
The Yankees have to hope that this is just a bump in the road for Tanaka. Even if he is not as dominant as his 11-1, 1.99 ERA start suggested, he needs to pitch like an ace every time out. The days of Tanaka settling in as a “number three starter” have long past. He is the unquestioned ace of the Yankees. CC Sabathia was not pitching well before his injury, and now his season and possibly career may be over. Ivan Nova won’t pitch again until midway through 2015. Heaven only knows when Michael Pineda will be able to take the mound for the Yankees. The course of the 2014 season lies squarely on Masahiro Tanaka’s shoulders.
There are other factors that will undoubtedly influence the outcome of the Yankees’ season in the second half. Some players will get healthy and produce, others will get injured. Trades may have a huge effect on the pitching staff and the lineup. Players will get hot and cold. But one thing will remain a constant. The Yankees will go as far as Tanaka takes them. If he can have the same kind of success in the second half as he had in the first, the Yankees have as good a shot as anyone to win the AL East or a wild card. However, if Tanaka slumps through the second half, and fails to provide the wins, innings, and magic that he did int he first, the Yankees are doomed.