Ho hum, another seven shutout innings for Masahiro Tanaka in yesterday’s west coast road trip finale. The Yankees’ ace has thrown gem after gem this season, but has seemingly flown under the radar on a league-wide scale. We hear plenty about the Jose Fernandez and Chris Sales of the world, but rarely does Tanaka’s name come up discussion of the world’s best starting pitchers. I’m not saying Tanaka is on par with Fernandez or Sale, but it’s not like the Japanese right-hander’s results are miles behind.
Traditional methods of pitcher evaluation are likely the reason for Tanaka’s somewhat unheralded 2016. This isn’t to say Tanaka’s pitched poorly based on old-school metrics, but he isn’t quite at the top of the leaderboard. In all of baseball, he ranks 19th in ERA (3.11), 10th in Innings Pitched (168), is tied for 7th in Wins (11), and is tied for 19th in strikeouts (142). That’s all very good! But guys like JA Happ and Rick Porcello have gotten more buzz because of their win totals (17) despite Tanaka’s arguably better performance. We’re far past the era of needing to explain to people why pitcher wins is a terrible stat (and I’m not going to here), but it still does gets noticed.
Appreciating Tanaka’s excellent 2016 doesn’t require a deep dive into advanced statistics. It might require looking a tad further than traditional methods of evaluation, but certainly nothing difficult to comprehend. At this point of the season, Tanaka ranks 7th in FIP (3.22) and 4th in FIP- (73). Such performance has propped him up to a 3rd-place tie for fWAR (FIP-based) with Corey Kluber, at 4.4. Tanaka’s RA9 WAR (based on runs allowed, a more “traditional” WAR metric if there is such a thing) is 4.2, 8th in the majors.
I understand that some prefer the results based runs allowed metrics in comparison to the defense-independent analysis. Nonetheless, Tanaka’s essentially been the same guy on both sides of the coin, with an ERA only 0.11 lower than his FIP. Despite the two metrics proximity to each other, Tanaka is more of a top-20 pitcher based on traditional methods versus a top-5 pitcher by FIP-based evaluation. Perhaps it would just make sense to split the difference. Thankfully, Fangraphs has a 50/50 WAR, balancing RA9WAR and fWAR. Tanaka’s sits at 4.3, which is the 7th-best mark in the baseball. There are ten players ahead of him, but there are numerous ties. Of those ten, seven players are in the National League. The only two ahead of him in the American League are the White Sox’ one-two punch, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
Has Tanaka been a top-10 starting pitcher in the majors this season? I think there’s a pretty strong case to be made. 3rd-best in the AL behind Sale and Quintana? That might not be a stretch.
When 2016 is all said and done, Tanaka should be right near the top of the American League Cy Young ballot. He won’t win, and probably shouldn’t unless he runs off an incredible final month of the season, but he absolutely deserves to finish in the Top-5. For all of the talk about his elbow being a ticking time bomb over the past couple of years, it’s truly been a pleasure to watch Tanaka take the mound each turn. Any recognition he receives will be merited.
Statistics via Fangraphs.