Judging any baseball player off of merely two games isn't exactly recommended, especially when those two games also happen to be said player's first ever in Major League Baseball. But in the case of Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees, snap judgments are all but inescapable.
So let's try one on for size: After just two big league starts, Masahiro Tanaka already is the Yankees' ace.
After picking up the win with seven strong innings over the Toronto Blue Jays in his impressive MLB debut last week, Tanaka once again hurled seven frames against the Baltimore Orioles in his first game at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, a contest the Yankees ultimately lost 5-4 after Tanaka's day was done.
In his first 14 innings, the 25-year-old with the $155 million contract has allowed six runs (five earned) on 13 hits with a robust 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while facing two tough AL East competitors, both of whom finished among the top 10 in runs scored and among the top five in home runs last season.
Masahiro Tanaka: 1st pitcher to start career with pair of 8+ strikeout games since Stephen Strasburg in 2010— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 10, 2014
Even if both of Tanaka's outings started off a bit shaky—he allowed a leadoff homer to Melky Cabrera in his first start, and O's rookie Jonathan Schoop hit a three-run shot in the second inning Wednesday—it's hard to be better than he's been, especially given the circumstances and expectations.
In fact, the way he's bounced back and settled down after early trouble is another good sign, particularly for someone as under the microscope as Tanaka is.
Tanaka has been pretty consistent in his two starts -- a mistake or two early, then lock it down through 7 innings. Impressive.— Daniel Barbarisi (@DanBarbarisi) April 10, 2014
Speaking of expectations, remember when Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, fresh off handing Tanaka the fifth-largest contract ever for a right-handed pitcher, tried his best to tamp them down back in February by claiming that Tanaka was a "No. 3 starter"?
Here's the full quote via Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York:
We view him to be a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter. If we get more than that, all the better. He's got a great deal of ability. There is definitely some unknown because of the transition. We scouted him extensively. Certainly, we look forward to adding him into the mix with the rest of our rotation. That's what we look at him as: A solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues.
That was a noble attempt by Cashman, but it seemed odd at the time—why put up a $175 million outlay, including the release fee, for a mid-rotation arm?—and Tanaka is making that assessment look silly so far.
Which brings us back around to that snap judgment up top. While declaring Tanaka an ace without question falls under the too-much-too-soon category, he is—and needs to be—the Yankees' best pitcher. After all, the reason New York shelled out all that money to land Tanaka this winter wasn't a secret: The Yankees needed pitching, specifically a potential top-of-the-rotation arm.
CC Sabathia, the club's former ace, is still capable and effective when he's throwing well in a given game, but the 33-year-old is mostly in decline and remains very much a concern going forward.
Hiroki Kuroda continues to be his solid, consistent self, although he, too, struggled late last season and checks in at the advanced baseball age of 39 years.
Ivan Nova, 27, appeared to turn the corner during the second half of 2013, but he's off to a poor start this season, thus further cementing his status as talented but enigmatic.
And 25-year-old Michael Pineda, the big righty acquired more than 26 months ago from the Seattle Mariners for then-top prospect Jesus Montero, only just made his Yankees debut the day after Tanaka made his.
Is Masahiro Tanaka the Yankees' ace?
While each of those four is capable of putting together a big outing, or even a run of outings, when everything clicks, Tanaka looks like the one with the stuff and mentality, if not the MLB experience, to lead the Yankees' staff. Already.
"Obviously, he's pitched in big games—not necessarily here but in his country [of Japan]," manager Joe Girardi said prior to Tanaka's first start in New York, per Joe Lemire of MLB.com. "And there's been a lot expected of him and put on his shoulders over there, so I don't think that's something new."
Back in New York, where snap judgments are a way of life when it comes to the team in the Bronx, it might be a bit soon to call Tanaka an ace without qualification. But after merely his first two starts in the majors, it's not necessarily too soon to call him the Yankees' ace.
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