Some respected members of the baseball intelligentsia, including ESPN’s Jim Bowden and Jayson Stark, don’t believe Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka should be eligible for American League Rookie of the Year award.
The naysayers argue that veterans of the top international circuits, like the Nippon league in Japan and the Serie Nacional in Cuba, shouldn’t qualify as rookies because the competition in those leagues is a notch above the U.S. minor leagues.
They have a point, but I don’t agree with it. Maybe I’m hopelessly old school, but anything outside the Major Leagues is minor league baseball. Wasn’t there wide-spread skepticism about Tanaka’s ability to make the difficult leap from Japan to the big leagues when the Yankees signed him?
The real debate shouldn’t be about Tanaka’s worthiness as ROY, but his credentials as MVP. If I had a vote right now, Tanaka would be my top choice for the American League Most Valuable Player award.
My feelings on this subject are well-documented. For more than 25 years, I’ve been arguing that starting pitchers should get more consideration for MVP. This flies in the face of the tired, conventional notion that pitchers don’t deserve it because they don’t play every day.
Value is a difficult thing to define. The MVP should be the player who has the greatest influence on his team’s overall record and position in the standings. One pitcher is often the difference between a .500 team and a playoff team, especially in the wild-card era.
The other facile argument is that pitchers have their own award – the Cy Young. The Cy merely reinforces the MVP bias. It suggests that the MVP is for the hitters, the real players. Baseball should create a Babe Ruth Award for the top hitter, which would level the MVP field in voters’ minds.
Anyway, Tanaka, 25, is a shining example of the starting pitcher as MVP. On a Yankee staff that has been ravaged by injuries, he has been their redoubtable ace, their salvation, the one man separating a storied franchise from mediocrity.
As of Saturday, the Yankees were 31-29, tied for the second wild-card spot in the American League. They were 10-2 in Tanaka’s dozen starts. With him, they were tied for the second wild-card spot in the AL. When he starts, they’re a force. When he doesn’t, they’re Houston.
Tanaka is 9-1 with a league-leading 2.02 ERA. He has 92 strikeouts and 13 walks, a staggering K-BB ratio of more than 7 to 1. He has gone at least six innings and allowed three or fewer runs in all 12 starts, becoming the first rookie in more than 100 years to accomplish the feat.
But mere stats can’t measure what it has meant to manager Joe Girardi to have Tanaka go out there every five days. Ivan Nova is out for the year. C.C. Sabathia has missed a month with a bad right knee, and he was a shell of his old self when healthy. Michael Pineda is on the 60-day DL. This is a ragged Yankee team, too reliant on high-priced, fragile veterans like Carlos Beltran (who is back, but has bone chips in his right elbow) and Mark Teixeira. But just when you assume they’re ready to go into the tank, Tanaka lifts them back out.
They hadn’t lost more than two games in a row until dropping four in a row from May 10 to 13. The Yanks allowed 32 runs in those games. They gave up 21 runs to the lowly Mets in the last two. Tanaka ended the losing streak by shutting out the Mets on four hits, his first career shutout.
The Yankees went 2-5 on a recent seven-game homestand. Tanaka won both games. This past Thursday, they were on another four-game losing streak and had fallen back to .500 on the season. Tanaka beat Oakland, 2-1, shutting down the top scoring team in baseball.
It was Tanaka’s third straight start in which he yielded no more than one run. He gave up a home run to the second batter of the game, John Jaso, and retired the next 10 hitters. He walked only one.
He seems to rise to the tough moments. Twice, he got out of two-out, two-on jams.
After the game, Tanaka said through an interpreter that it wasn’t one of his better games. He expects more from himself. Girardi said it has reached the point where he expects Tanaka to go deep in the game every time out, giving the Yanks a chance to win and sparing his bullpen.
It’s scary to think how good Tanaka could be. He’s 25, still adjusting to the Major Leagues. He has demonstrated rare command of the strike zone, which has been an issue for foreign hurlers early in their big-league careers. His split-fingered fastball is a horror show for hitters.
The Yankees might still finish under .500, which would make it hard to push anyone for MVP. But do you honestly think the Yankees would be above .500 if they had Robinson Cano on the roster instead of Tanaka? I’d take my chances with Tanaka over Cano and Alex Rodriguez.
I’m not a Brian Cashman fan. It doesn’t take a genius to throw a pile of money at aging free-agent hitters. The organization allowed him to go seven years, $155 million for Tanaka, the most ever handed to a free-agent pitcher and roughly what the Mariners are paying Felix Hernandez. Still, Cashman was right about Tanaka (and another rookie revelation, Yangervis Solarte). For that sort of investment, Tanaka had to be great. He has been worth every penny. He’s a more polished pitcher in his first big-league season than his countryman, the Rangers’ Yu Darvish.
Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki won both the Rookie and MVP awards for Seattle in 2001 at age 27. I feel the same way about Tanaka as I did about Ichiro. It’s great for the game. Baseball people shouldn’t be complaining that Tanaka is too good for a rookie. They should be celebrating it.