Masahiro Tanaka pitching for more than just Game 5 win

The New York Yankees are trusting Masahiro Tanaka to bring home a win in Game 5 today, but the Japanese righty is pitching for much, much more.

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Masahiro Tanaka takes the mound today and hopes to do ultimately more than put his New York Yankees up 3-2 against the Houston Astros in the ALCS. The Japanese veteran is pitching not only to take a step closer to the World Series but also to decide his future.

Tanaka has the option to opt out of the final three years of his current contract with New York at season’s end and become a free agent. Doing so would involve leaving $67 million on the table and expecting to land a more lucrative deal on the open market.

Tanaka only has until three days following the end of the World Series to make this decision and even though he’s not showing it or has commented on the matter, it is surely weighing heavily on his mind.

The original contract

Tanaka became a Yankee in December 2013 after New York (and other teams) landed the right to negotiate with him after paying a $20 million posting fee, and their offer of $155 million over seven years proved to be enough to put him in pinstripes. The right-hander went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA as a 25-year-old rookie but made just 20 starts due to elbow issues. It was later determined that Tanaka had a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, but he opted to rehab the injury instead of losing a year to Tommy John surgery.

That proved to be a smart decision. In spite of bumps and bruises along the way, Tanaka pitched to 3.12 ERA over his first three MLB seasons and though he never put up overwhelmingly ace-like numbers, it was looking as though he probably would exercise his opt-out clause after the 2017 season.

A bump in the road

Things changed for Tanaka this season, and not for the better. Hitters were jumping on his pitches a lot more often and in a season that saw a record number of home runs, that affected his stats negatively.

Tanaka went 13-12 with a career-worst 4.74 ERA and gave up 35 home runs in 178.1 innings in 2017. His BABIP jumped from .271 in 2016 to .305 this year. His home run to fly ball ratio skyrocketed from 12% to 21.2% and he didn’t look like his former self. Was his old elbow injury finally rearing its ugly head, or was Tanaka just having terrible luck?

The turnaround

Regardless of the reason, Tanaka turned things around just in time for the playoffs. His splitter was hit or miss all season, so Tanaka has instead focused more on using his slider. This led to him posting a career-high 15 strikeouts in his final start of the regular season, in which he threw seven shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays. That form has followed him to the playoffs, and how.

Tanaka is 1-1 with a 1.38 ERA in his two playoff starts this year and the loss is not entirely his fault. It was in Game 1 of this very ALCS and he was up against Dallas Keuchel, the same man who takes the mound for Houston today. New York did not score a single run off Keuchel in that game whereas the Astros scored two runs off Tanaka thanks to a pair of RBI singles in the fourth inning. Tanaka still only gave up four hits in six innings and walked just one, and his start against the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS yielded seven shutout innings against the team initially considered a favorite to win it all.

Tanaka has thus greatly improved his chances of getting a better contract if he does choose to opt out, even if the optics of such would suggest whichever team pays him would be doing so based on his playoff performance.

Either way, in typical pro fashion, Tanaka is not even thinking about his contract right now and will be focused on one thing only: bringing home the win in Game 5.

But the fact also remains that at some point, Tanaka and the Yankees are going to have to address the elephant in the room. Regardless of how that goes down, both parties must trust each other to do what is in their best interests.