The last one sits closest to reality, given that Tanaka finished seventh in last year’s American League vote that salutes the junior circuit’s best pitcher. And that Tanaka’s performance on this day stood out as particularly elite, enhancing an already impressive spring.
The right-hander dominated an admittedly underwhelming Tigers lineup, throwing four perfect innings and striking out seven — including the first six batters — while walking none, as the Yankees prevailed, 7-1, to raise their Grapefruit League record to an MLB-best 13-3. His mastery impressed to the extent that, as he said he felt most satisfied with the movement of his two-seam fastball, a scout on site pointed out Tanaka’s command of his off-speed pitches.
“He didn’t look like he was in spring training, for sure,” Detroit veteran first baseman Alex Avila said.
“I’d love to see him take that stuff into the regular season,” Brett Gardner said.
Leave it to the placid Tanaka himself, who probably wouldn’t show emotion even if he made a movie and it mistakenly received Best Picture, to throw water on the excitement.
“Obviously you want the results,” the 28-year-old said through his interpreter. “But you can’t just look at that. We have the WBC — not to downgrade anybody, but a lot of the good players are playing in the WBC. So the guys that you’re facing might be a little bit different, too. So in that regard, it wouldn’t be really safe to look just at the results.”
Tanaka made a heck of a case for teams to lower their ticket prices during the World Baseball Classic. Let’s put that aside for the moment, though. This marks Tanaka’s de facto walk season, as his seven-year, $155 million agreement allows him to opt out at the conclusion of this campaign. How high can he fly? I asked him if he considered it realistic to surpass last year’s 3.07 ERA in 199²/₃ innings, the most he has pitched in the majors, with 165 strikeouts and 36 walks.
“You want to make it into a reality,” Tanaka responded. “As a player, you always want to become better. So, yes.”
Last month, Tanaka, who continues to pitch with a slight tear in the UCL of his right elbow, declared his hope to reach the 220-230 innings range, and he reiterated that Saturday.
“This game’s all about consistency,” Avila said. “He seems like he’s on the right track from today’s start, for sure, to continue that success. So he’s got good stuff.”
Manager Joe Girardi, asked about the Yankees’ scheduled Opening Day starter being included among the game’s top tier of arms, said, “I think those guys earned it over time, but when you think about what Masahiro’s done for us the last three years, it’s been really, really good. Part of his maybe not being in that conversation is he hasn’t been an 18-, 19-, 20-game winner, he hasn’t thrown 230 innings in a season. But when you look at him, he’s vital for our staff. He’s really important for our staff.”
Tanaka might need to be more vital, more important, if the Yankees are to achieve their tightrope-walking goal of contending this season while developing their youngsters. Sanchez hit his third homer of the spring Saturday, yet no one expects him to go deep anywhere as often as his once every 10.05 at-bats from last year. While Torres went deep Saturday for the first time this preseason, he will start the year at Double-A Trenton.
Tanaka leads the Yankees’ quest for individual hardware, leads their underdog effort, too. His ceiling correlates directly to his team’s. For now, Yankees fans, dream away.