Six months ago the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees emerged from baseball’s winter meetings prepared to take big risks.
Having scouted Masahiro Tanaka extensively, the Yankees determined that the 25-year-old right-hander could succeed at the MLB level. Though he had never pitched in the big leagues, his fastball-splitter combination helped him go 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan. The Yankees believed those results would translate across the Pacific.
Brian Cashman wasn’t the only general manager impressed by Tanaka, whose stuff, youth and health made him the off-season’s most attractive arm. Signing him would require a massive outlay of cash, and after surveying the rest of a mostly unremarkable pitching market, the Yankees were ready to spend. Six weeks and $175 million later, Tanaka was wearing pinstripes.
To the surprise of many, the Blue Jays were as quiet as the Yankees were splashy. Having spent big the previous off-season, they couldn’t even pursue Ervin Santana without asking their players to defer salaries. Out-bidding the Yankees for Tanaka was not going to happen.
Instead, the Blue Jays decided against adding to a rotation that appeared to be in serious need of an upgrade. At the time, Alex Anthopoulos said he had confidence in Toronto’s internal options, but that sounded a whole lot like GM-speak after watching Blue Jays starters post a 4.81 ERA during a dismal 88-loss season.
Now, as the Blue Jays visit the Yankees for the first time this season, both teams are relatively well-positioned thanks to their off-season gambles.
The Yankees are tied for second in the American League East, still in the playoff race with a 35-33 record. Yet it’s safe to say they’d be nowhere close to contention without Tanaka. When he pitches, New York is 11-2, and they’re just 24-31 in all other games.
Tanaka, who starts for the Yankees Tuesday, has a 10-1 record with a 2.02 ERA and 103 strikeouts against just 14 walks through 93.2 innings. He’s an early Cy Young Award candidate, and that seven-year contract is looking like a bargain. While back-of-the-rotation arms such as Chase Whitley and Vidal Nuno are far from sure things, the Yankees have reason to believe Tanaka's success will continue.
Toronto’s bet on internal options has worked out as well as the Blue Jays could have hoped. The Blue Jays lead the AL East with a 41-30 record thanks in large part to quality starting pitching.
As improbable as it would have seemed six months ago, 23-year-old right-handers Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman have provided the Blue Jays with the boost Anthopoulos sought. Hutchison has a 3.62 ERA through 14 outings, and Stroman posted a 2.50 ERA through his first three starts.
Mark Buehrle has been every bit as effective as Tanaka and veterans R.A. Dickey and J.A. Happ are rounding out a rotation that has a 3.67 ERA – more than a run better than the 2013 group despite the quiet winter.
Still, every lineup that has faced Tanaka has been seeing him for the first time ever to this point in the season. While there’s ample reason to believe his success will continue, hitters could adjust to an extent when they see him for the second and third times.
As for the Blue Jays, their starters have benefitted from the third-best strand rate in the game (76.4 percent) and the fourth-lowest home run per fly ball rate in baseball (8.5 percent). Those rates are not particularly predictive, which means the Blue Jays should experience some regression moving forward.
Yet three and a half months into the season, this much is apparent: the Yankees correctly assessed Tanaka's considerable talent and the Blue Jays had lots more pitching in their organization than they got credit for. As a result, those big off-season bets are paying off.