NEW YORK -- Coming into the ALDS, the New York Yankees had legitimate questions about their starting rotation. The team did not add a starter at the trade deadline and Domingo German was suspended late in the season under MLB's domestic violence policy, leaving the Yankees without a fourth starter.
Furthermore, James Paxton came into October with zero postseason experience and Luis Severino missed nearly the entire season with shoulder and lat injuries. His effectiveness was and may still be in question. That left veteran Masahiro Tanaka as the only established postseason performer in New York's rotation entering the ALDS. In Game 2 on Saturday (NYY 8, MIN 2), he turned in another gem.
"He's just really good at his craft. He understands his body, his mechanics, can do a lot of things with the ball, obviously, and I thought today was pretty sharp," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the win. "I thought he threw some good splits. The slider was a real factor for him. I saw him elevate the heater a little bit at times when he needed to and gave us just what we needed and really set a good tone for us to send us off to Minnesota in a good position."
On paper, the Twins were a very good matchup for Tanaka. He is the game's best at getting hitters to chase out of the strike zone thanks to his plus slider and plus splitter -- his 40.2 percent chase rate since 2017 is the highest in baseball by a wide margin (Carlos Carrasco is second at 37.0 percent). Furthermore, the Twins posted the highest regular season chase rate (31.4 percent) among postseason teams in 2019.
As a result, Tanaka struck out seven batters and generated 16 swings and misses in Game 2. He struck out seven batters only once in his final 16 regular season starts, and only twice this year did he record as many as 16 swings and misses in a game. As you'd guess, many of those swings and misses came on chases out of the strike zone Saturday:
"I think the offspeed stuff -- slider and splitter -- I think they were both pretty consistent throughout the game, which helped me, made me successful in the game," Tanaka said. "I wish the fastball was a little bit better, you know, tried to use that a little bit, but I feel like I was able to use that enough so both the offspeed stuff were working."
The Yankees have a very good bullpen and Tanaka tends to struggle in later innings -- he allowed a .309/.347/.596 batting line the third time through the lineup during the regular season -- so rather than send him back out for the sixth inning in Game 2, Boone went to his relievers. Tanaka only threw 83 pitches and appeared to have more left in the tank.
"The bottom line is, at that point, a little bit of traffic there (in the sixth inning), and I would have probably gone and gotten him. Right now, it's about us winning, and I think everyone's on board with that," Boone said when asked about pulling Tanaka.
Tanaka's one bad ("bad") inning came in the top of the fourth, when he allowed a run on a walk and two singles, the second of which was a weak ground ball against the shift. That came after the Yankees blew the game open with a seven-run bottom of the third and Tanaka sat a while in the dugout. His control was a little off that inning. Otherwise, Tanaka shut the Twins down.
Masahiro Tanaka joins Sandy Koufax as the 2nd pitcher in MLB history to allow no more than 2 runs in each of his first 6 postseason starts— James Smyth (@JamesSmyth621) October 6, 2019
"The bottom line is, if he's throwing the ball the way he's capable of and on top of his game, we feel like he's a good matchup anywhere," Boone said earlier in the week when asked about starting Tanaka in Game 2 rather than Game 3 given his extreme home/road splits (3.10 ERA vs. 6.05 ERA).
Saturday was Tanaka's sixth career postseason start and, in those six starts, he owns a 1.54 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 35 innings. His postseason resume includes:
- 2017 ALDS Game 3: Seven shutout innings with the Yankees facing elimination vs. Indians.
- 2017 ALCS Game 5: Seven shutout innings to give the Yankees a 3-2 series lead vs. Astros.
- 2018 ALDS Game 2: One run in five innings in the Yankees' only win of the series vs. Red Sox.
"He's an artist out there," Aaron Judge said. "Every postseason he always has a special game."
Tanaka doesn't have the postseason resume of, say, Madison Bumgarner or Justin Verlander, but he has been excellent in October during his time with the Yankees. In a rotation of question marks, Tanaka is the closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing this postseason. In Game 2 on Saturday, he turned in another great start to help the Yankees take a 2-0 series lead.
"I actually don't get too caught up on being good in the postseason and all that," Tanaka said. "Come to think about it, I think it's still a small sample. My thing is just go out there and be the best that you can be, compete, and, yeah, just be the best that you can be."