Yankees Fans Should Never Be Scared Of Tanaka’s Elbow

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports /

The Yankees will soon start a new season. But one thing that will remain the same is hearing that Yankees fan ought to be scared about Masahiro Tanaka. Yankees and Yankees fans, however, should never be afraid. That only comes from playing the Yankees.

Yankees Masahiro Tanaka will start the 2017 season as the ace of the staff and why not. 2016 saw him pitch 200 innings, strikeout 165 batters, finish with an ERA of 3.07, and in the CY Young conversation. He was a true number one and a workhorse.

In fact, his entire three-year MLB stat sheet tells the story of an excellent young pitcher. He has consistently thrown more innings in the MLB every year while maintaining his walks per nine and improving his strikeouts per nine.

Fear is a disease. Others want us to catch it because they think it will make us weak. But Yankees and Yankees fans only carry the illness; perpetual winning has immunized us

Masahiro dominated in his first year, 2014, with an ERA of 2.77 and a WHIP of 1.056. His period took a step back in 2015 (3.51) although it remained that of a front-line starter. Little noticed was that his WHIP went down that year to 0.994, the best of any of his three years.

Last year, 2016, Tanaka seemed to make the necessary adjustments, and he carried the pitching staff to the brink of the postseason. The story of Tanaka and his Adventures with the Yankees has been a pretty good one for the fans.

But the story of baseball, and of baseball players, cannot be known or told strictly from the stat sheet. Tanaka is a case in point. And like many pitchers, one of the biggest chapters is about injuries.

The Specter of Tommy John

Back in 2014 Tanaka slightly tore the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right elbow, as Jason Evans reported right here at Yanks Go Yard:

"The recommendation for now is to rehab and best case scenario, he like Michael Pineda, would be back in August. All three doctors say it’s a small tear and that rehab will help…"

He saw three different doctors but got one opinion: rehabilitation not surgery. Tanaka prudently took the advice of these highly trained specialists and opted not to have surgery.

That decision seems to have worked out just fine. He struggled in 2015 a bit, although that had more to do with his very straight four-seam fastball. But he returned to Ace level in 2016 and looks even better in this year’s spring training. His pitch command, invisible ERA (0.00 in 19 innings), anemic WHIP (0.48) and strikeouts (22) all point to a pitcher who has gotten stronger and better since his elbow tear first surfaced.

So the story of the UCL tear seems to have a happy ending. There was a tear, Tanaka rehabbed it on the advice of doctors, and has gotten stronger every year since then. Last season showed he is fully recovered and he looks even better now. The End.

Fear Itself

Sadly, though, there are those who just cannot let it go. Or maybe they just don’t want Yankees fans to let it go. David Lennon of Newsday brought it up last February and reinforced worrying every day:

"By choosing to put off Tommy John surgery, and given the mileage on his right elbow, Tanaka remains a perpetual question mark no matter how capable he looks during his bullpen sessions or how effective he is in his Grapefruit League starts."

Perpetual, really? Rotoworld, in its 2017 Fantasy Baseball Outlook had this to say:

"Tanaka has perpetually been on injury watch since electing to forgo Tommy John surgery in 2014 and pitching through a partially torn UCL"

Again with calling it perpetual. These writers need to learn some new words. Even our own Mike Calendrillo mused about the elbow when discussing the Yankees possibly re-signing Tanaka:

"Without the presence of that ticking time bomb for an elbow, Tanaka would be looking at a $200M contract. …even if Tanaka were to win 20 games and lead the Yankees to the promised land, re-signing him after he opts out, comes with significant risk. You just never know when one wrong pitch will knock him out for 14-18 months…"

More from Yanks Go Yard

So the elbow is a ticking time bomb subject to an explosion with every pitch. OMG!

We have heard this for the last three years, and there are no signs of abatement. Every time Tanaka takes the mound, commentators from Matt Vasgersian to Buster Olney all make the same two comments.

First, they attempt to read our minds and proclaim that Yankees fans think of Tanaka’s elbow every time he throws the ball; we don’t. And, worse yet, they try to instill fear in us by saying we have to be scared every time he takes the mound.

Move Confidently in the Direction of Your World Series Dreams

That kind of thinking is anathema to Yankees and Yankees fans. First, we can see for ourselves that Masahiro has gotten better, not stayed the same or regressed. We have plenty of actual evidence that the Doctors, with their fancy medical degrees, knew more about this than those who graduated with degrees in Physical Education.

But more important is that Yankees and Yankees fans should never be ruled by fear. That is not the Yankees way. Tanaka might very well have a career-ending injury tomorrow that is directly linked to his UCL tear; okay. I don’t want that to happen but being afraid of it will not make his elbow better. All it can do is make life worse on a daily basis waiting for something that might never occur.

Think about it like this. Let’s say you have to move to a hot spot for hurricanes. From the moment you step there, you are constantly worried about being hit by one of these life-threatening storms. You live there for thirty years until, finally, a hurricane hit. It’s bad, but you live through it.

So, you spent thirty years living in fear and making your daily life a nerve-wracking marathon of tension and stress. But the event only lasted a few days. Your nervousness did not prevent the hurricane from striking or make the damage any less. The event happened in complete obliviousness to your feelings, and all you did was make your life a lot worse.

No one should live life like that for any reason. And, while I would not worry about Tanaka as much as I would the health and safety of my family, adding any extra worry to life is always a negative. And it is not the Yankees way.

Koros and Hubris, Hold the Ate

Yankees haters should not take this as hubris. It is more Pavlovian Conditioned Response. The Bronx Bombers have won 27 World Series in fewer than 100 years. In the last 22 years alone they

Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

have won five championships. There are 22 teams that have never won more than that in the history of their franchises.

And they win in a distinctly Yankees way. The Yankees won four WS in five years from 1996-2000. The only other teams to do that in the modern history of baseball were all Yankees teams. They are the winningest sports team in history and have not had a losing season since 1992.

So when the bell for a new season rings, we start to salivate at the reasonable expectation of winning. Both fans and players have every right to feel this way. And studies show that people do better in all endeavors when they approach situations with confidence.

Watch those Yankees playoff and WS games on YES, and you will hear an optimistic crowd shouting from the upper deck and rocking the stadium. Those teams won because of talent and effort, and the optimism of the crowd and players.

Compare that to the last play-in game at Yankees stadium. That crowd was quiet and seemed to anticipate bad things happening. Is it just a coincidence that the Yankees lost that game?

Yankees Are Hooked on a Feeling

So, no, all you folks at ESPN and on the MLB Network, Yankees, and Yankees fans are not thinking of Tanaka’s elbow every time he pitches. And we do not live in fear that it might someday blow out. That could happen; we are just not going to spend our time dreading it.

Instead, we spend our time getting ready to win. And whether the Yankees are playing at home or marching right into your team’s home turf, we expect them to dominate. That’s just what the Yankees have conditioned us to expect. And it’s what we expect from Tanaka this year.

Fear is a disease. Others want us to catch it because they think it will make us weak. But Yankees and Yankees fans only carry the illness; perpetual winning has immunized us. And when their teams play the Yankees, they catch that disease while the Bombers stay confident and determined to win.

Now that’s something for those commentators to think about…and fear.