Why the Yankees should let Masahiro Tanaka start opening day

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 11: Masahiro Tanaka
TAMPA, FL - MARCH 11: Masahiro Tanaka /

It is hard to remember that not too long ago the best pitcher on the Yankees was Masahiro Tanaka.

Coming off a 2016 campaign in which Tanaka posted a 3.07 ERA and garnered Cy Young award votes, many expected Tanaka to follow up with another remarkable season as the Yankees’ ace. Those expectations seemed to be a possible reality after Tanaka buzzed through spring training of 2017 with a pristine 0.38 ERA.

However, a disastrous opening day start seemed to derail Tanaka off his sky-high trajectory. After struggling to a certain degree over his next few games, many thought that Tanaka had found himself after spinning a beautiful three-hit shutout against the Boston Red Sox. That was until he went on to have a horrible May, to the tune of an obese 8.42 ERA, even with his career-high 13-strikeout game.

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In June things weren’t getting any better for Tanaka after he gave up five runs in five innings in his first  start that month. Despite the poor outing his mechanics and velocity still looked normal. Seemingly there was nothing wrong with him. He ended up rebounding to a certain degree with a 3.94 ERA for the month thanks to an eight-inning shutout performance.

However, things started to get better in the summer.

After a streak of three straight quality starts, it seemed the Tanaka we all knew and loved was back. However, the inconsistency would continue in early July after he gave up five earned runs on the 9th. Still things would get better as he finished the month with a 3.82 ERA and followed that with a brilliant 2.63 ERA in August.

In September, Tanaka had the kind of month that summarized his up and down season perfectly.

Sept. 2713
Sept. 8477
Sept. 14728
Sept. 225.276
Sept. 297015

Tanaka’s crazy ups and downs finished on a high note as he set a career high in strikeouts to keep the Yankees in the division race. All in all, Tanaka put up a season that was much more fitting of Yankees’ enigma Michael Pineda. However, Tanaka used that last great start to catapult himself into an amazing postseason where he posted a sub-one ERA when it mattered most. There he proved that the pressure brings out the best of him.

After the season, Tanaka admitted that the reason for his struggles wasn’t mechanical, but a lack of confidence.

As Yogi Berra famously said, ” 90% of this game is half mental.” Even though Tanaka had his stuff a loss of faith in his pitches led to an extended slump which really hurt his season. Yet under extreme pressure in the playoffs, Tanaka had that confidence when he needed it the most and went face to face with the best the American League had to offer and won.

Now, although the best pitcher on the Yankees is Luis Severino, he has yet to prove himself in high-pressure situations. His 5.63 playoff ERA is an indicator that he struggled under the spotlight. Similarly, his ERA is a run and a half lower when playing away. This is evidence that might suggest Severino does better when there is less pressure. Which is why having him start on opening day might not be the best idea.

Starting Tanaka instead just might be the show of confidence he needs to help him return to the ace-caliber pitcher we all know he can be. A return to his ace form could be worth more than any trade the Yankees could make for another starter.

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Hopefully, with a renewed confidence, we can see the old Tanaka who posted a 3.07 ERA just two years ago. At only 29 it is not out of the realm of possibility for Tanaka to rebound and have a career year this year. If he does, a parade down the canyon of heroes suddenly becomes all the more likely.