While there is certainly no debate as to whether or not the Red Sox need starting pitching, there is a question as to what kind of starting pitching do they need. Obviously any team can use an ace-caliber pitcher, but there’s a difference between need and want. For the Red Sox, it might be an actual need. They have a guy who has been that elite arm before in Chris Sale, but he is not going to be ready for the start of the season and it’s not yet clear exactly when he’ll be back at full strength, not to mention the level to which he’ll be pitching. Eduardo Rodriguez has never really been quite ace quality on a consistent basis, but if you have a solid rotation one through five and he’s pitching like he did in the second half of 2019, you can certainly make that work. But as with Sale, questions are abound after his fight with COVID and myocarditis.
It’s not just that context that comes into play, though, because it’s easier said than done to find an ace. If anyone could just grab one whenever a need arose, then yeah there would be no question here. They should get a new ace. The market this year, however, is flooded with second- and third-tier pitchers. Trevor Bauer is at the top of the class, and if you want to pass on him for whatever reason —and whether it be money, draft pick compensation, personality, or lack of confidence in his 2020 performance, there are valid reasons to do so — then you’re taking a big step back. According to FanGraphs’s projections, the next name on that list would be Masahiro Tanaka.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Red Sox on even a periphery basis over the last decade, you’re almost surely familiar with Tanaka, who has been a mainstay in the Yankees rotation since 2014. The former NPB star came over from Japan in the previous winter with big-time expectations. He didn’t ever really blossom into any sort of ace or a Cy Young candidate (he did get down-ballot love in 2016, to be fair), but he has served as a consistent, above-average, mid-rotation arm for Boston’s biggest rival each and every year.
That’s been the big selling point for Tanaka over his career: He’s consistently good, if not quite great. I’m not super plugged into Yankee fandom, but my impression from the outside is that some treated that as a disappointment, but really that’s unfair. It’s important to have pitchers like Tanaka, who since entering the league in 2014 has pitched to an 87 ERA- (ERA after being adjusted for park effects and league-average), meaning he’s been 13 percent better than league average.
The be fair, a lot of his best seasons were earlier in his major-league career. Over his first three seasons, that career average 87 ERA- matched the worst of that stretch. In the four years since, he had one season where he was below-average by pure results and has largely hovered around 90 in terms of ERA-. That’s still good, but it’s out of the conversation of great. Peripherally, he has been closer to five percent better than average in recent years, though his style of pitching, which we’ll get to in a minute, does seem conducive to his results being better than the peripherals, generally speaking.
Teams aren’t paying for the past, though, and the conversation here has to revolve around what to expect moving forward. As I look at the case for Tanaka, there seems to be a pretty good case for both optimism and pessimism, relatively speaking, for the 32-year-old moving forward. That age is certainly a stumbling point, especially for a team like the Red Sox who should be trying to win in 2021 but are also realistically building more for something a couple years down the line. Tanaka will be 32 for all of 2021, but there are reasons to believe he could age better than your typical pitcher.
One reason goes back to that style I alluded to above. Tanaka is not a guy who relies on big fastballs that will see regression as soon as that arm strength dwindles. Instead, his fastball has consistently been his worst pitch and when he’s going at his best he’s leaning most heavily on his splitter and slider. Those pitches can still decline with age, of course, but it may not be as stark of a concern as it would be for a fastball-oriented pitcher.
On top of that, and along a similar line, Tanaka is also not a pitcher who relies on strikeouts. The righty has always been a solid strikeout pitcher, but he’s hovered more around average than anything that really jumps off the page. Instead, he excels when he’s just keeping runners off the bases, whether it be by control or batting average on balls in play. For the former, he has never carried a walk rate over 5.5 percent and is coming off a season in which he walked 4.1 percent of opponents. To add a little context, the league-average rate right now is up above nine percent.
And with respect to BABIP, Tanaka has allowed a mark over .300 just once in his career, and that came in at just .305. Some of that can be attributed to New York’s defense, but it’s also because of that style of pitching that relies on the splitter and slider leads to contact on pitches with heavy movement, which is much more difficult to square up than a fastball.
So, that could all be an argument for Tanaka aging well, but it’s still hard to look past the age. And on top of him just approaching his mid-30s, he’s also had some issues with his elbow in the past. To his credit, nothing has really flared up in a major way, but there has been some holding of breaths dating back to his rookie year in 2014. At that point he had suffered a slight tear in his UCL, and he opted for rehab instead of surgery. That decision was met with skepticism, but to this point it has worked out. Going back to 2016, he hasn’t started fewer than 27 games in a season besides 2020, when he made 10 in the 60-game season. But we’ve learned with Chris Sale and Justin Verlander, among others, before him, even the most durable pitchers can start to see those elbow issues creep up more often as you get older.
Ultimately, as much as I’ve always been a fan of Tanaka’s game, he seems more like a target for a team more clearly trying to win in 2021, with the Red Sox likely preferring someone a little younger and perhaps with more straight upside, even if that comes with a lower floor. And for me, the big issue, if there is one, is the price. FanGraphs readers predict a three-year deal for $54 million while MLB Trade Rumors is calling a three-year deal worth $39 million. Given the number of holes for the Red Sox this winter as well as the unfortunate reality of what their spending is likely to be, that $5 million difference in average annual value is big, and if it’s closer to the former projection I would stay away. If it was in that 3/39 range, though, I’d certainly be much more on board.
And the other important part of this? The Red Sox signing Tanaka would infuriate a good number of Yankee fans, and you can’t put a price on that.