By Jason Keidel
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While the Yankees are in second place in the AL East and nostrils above the .500 waters, they have mostly one person to thank, though he might not understand them.
Brian Cashman may have said that Masahiro Tanaka wasn’t an ace, but he’s certainly pitching like one. The Yankees (26-23) are 8-2 when Tanaka starts, for an .800 winning percentage. They are a woeful 18-21 (.461 winning percentage) when the rest of the rotation pitches.
Tanaka has notched 10 quality starts in 10 total starts, while the rest of the rotation has combined for just 13 quality starts. Tanaka has a 2.29 ERA, while the rest of the rotation had a 4.72 ERA entering the weekend. His performance has placed him among the American League’s best pitchers, if not its most valuable player.
Most fans have had a robust debate over the duplicity of the MVP award. Pitchers can win the MVP and the Cy Young Award, while hitters win the MVP but not the Cy Young. Which begs the question: Why have a Cy Young if the MVP isn’t hitter-specific?
Why should someone who plays once a week win an award designed for someone who plays everyday? How can someone who appears in just 35 games and can’t hit mean more to a club than someone who plays in 160 games?
But if we are to adhere to the hypocrisy, then you can make a major case for Tanaka as MVP of the AL, at least slightly past the quarter-pole of the season.
In fact, you can argue MVP and Cy Young with equal vigor. Mark Buehrle is the only AL pitcher who’s posted (slightly) better numbers (8-1, 2.16 ERA). With perennial MVP candidates Mike Trout (.280 BA) and Miguel Cabrera (seven HR) not off to scalding starts, Tanaka could sneak in with a most unlikely baseball trifecta: Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young Award winner.
Sure, it’s only Memorial Day and we love to find and hop on early bandwagons every year, a pretext to shriek “I told you so” in August. But Tanaka (7-1) has the mystery of Japan and the mojo of the Yankees behind him.
It’s a cliché, but we do love the silent, unknown hero, the one who speaks only once a week through the secondhand voice of an interpreter. To New Yorkers, Tanaka does all his communicating on the diamond. He comes from another culture and continent, much the way Hideki Matsui came with the Godzilla handle, his bat wielding the power of the epic reptile’s tail.
Consider that the Yankees’ top three starters on the depth chart heading into the season — CC Sanathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova — are on the shelf, and that the rotation is buoyed by someone who hadn’t thrown a pitch in the majors until last month. Had the Yankees taken the more frugal, if not prudent, approach to free agency, they never would have found this pitching gem in Tanaka, who may have saved their season.
When asked about the success of Yu Darvish and Tanaka where other Japanese stars have failed, Bobby Valentine — who knows something about baseball in Japan — said it’s just a matter of more information being available to all nations, making them more apt to adjust to the sport and America.
Or maybe they’re just that good and would have succeeded anywhere, anytime. No matter the answer, the Yankees are grateful that they threw so much money at an unknown, though everyone knows Tanaka now.
He’s the MVP — of the New York Yankees, at least.
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