Masahiro Tanaka: Cy Young candidate

Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees has been building quite the Cy Young Award resume this season, and last night in Boston he demonstrated why he is one of the top contenders. Tanaka didn’t have his best stuff, but against a good team on the road he did what Cy Young winners do – he still found a way to shine.

Tanaka didn’t record a single strike out, but he did induce 13 groundball outs and held the Red Sox to just one run over 7 innings. It was the latest gem in a dominant season by the Yankees righty. In 30 starts Tanaka has thrown 193.2 innings, has a 2.97 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 7.44 K/9, 1.58 BB/9, 1.06 WHIP, 4.71 K/BB, and, according to FanGraphs, a 5.1 WAR.

Those are very strong numbers reflective of a great season. He leads all qualified American League pitchers in ERA and WAR while also being second in FIP. His 1.6 BB/9 is third lowest in the league, and his 1.06 WHIP places him fifth.

Tanaka does have some strong competition: Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, Chicago’s Chris Sale, Boston’s Rick Porcello, Detroit’s Justin Verlander, and Baltimore’s Zach Britton. The case against Britton was covered pretty well yesterday. In my mind, it boils down to this: while Britton has been great, he has only thrown 59.1 innings. Tanaka and the other contenders have thrown over three times as many innings. That’s a considerable difference that Britton just doesn’t overcome.

While an argument can certainly be made for any of the others, none of them can be placed unequivocally ahead of Tanaka. Kluber has a better FIP and K/9, but Tanaka has a better ERA and BB/9. Verlander has a better WHIP but Tanaka has a far better FIP. Sale and Porcello have a higher K/BB but Tanaka has a higher WAR. This race does not have a runway winner, and Tanaka’s overall case is just as good as any, if not better.

Leading the American League in ERA is no small feat, especially when playing your home games in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium. Coupling that with a solid FIP shows that he hasn’t been over performing his peripherals, and leading the league in WAR is nothing to sneeze at either. This has been an all around great season for Tanaka, and it has been one of the best season’s in the American League this year.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Tanaka’s season is how he has performed down the stretch. From August 7th through last night, Tanaka has started eight games. He’s thrown 53.1 innings with a 1.86 ERA, 48 strike outs, and only 7 walks. He has last into or beyond the seventh inning in six of those eight starts and only once has he failed to reach the sixth.

He has also shut down some good teams over that time: 6 IP, 1 ER against Cleveland; 7 shutout innings in Seattle; 6.1, 2 ER against Toronto; and last night’s 7 IP, 1 ER performance in Fenway. Those teams are all playoff contenders and Tanaka’s excellent performances in those games have helped keep the Yankees alive as they chase a wild card spot.

If you had to pick one American League pitcher to start a one game playoff right now, could you go wrong with picking Masahiro Tanaka?