MLB: Chicago Cubs at New York Yankees

The Yankees shut out the Chicago Cubs Tuesday behind a dominant pitching performance. Check that: the Yankees shutout the Cubs twice on Tuesday behind two dominant pitching performances. Yankees starters combined for 13 strikeouts and two walks over 14 innings behind a nice start from Michael Pineda and an incredible outing from Masahiro Tanaka.

If faced with the prospect of digging in against pitchers of this calibre in a doubleheader, former Cubs great Ernie Banks might not be so enthusiastic about playing twice in one day.

The Yankees roster is not perfect. The offense currently consists of Carlos Beltran and eight other guys who are not Carlos Beltran. That is no way to run a ball club. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s numbers are actually quite nice and Brian McCann will come around eventually. But realistically, the Yankees offense will struggle to generate more than a league average offense for much of this year. There is a limit to the amount of Dean Anna one team can absorb.

Luckily for New York, the Yankees pitching staff can match up with anybody. Their numbers as a staff are up there among the league leaders for innings pitched, strikeout rate, walk rate. The starters own an 86/17 strikeout to walk rate, the best in baseball.

These numbers stand out even more when we acknowledge that Ivan Nova, for all his size and stuff, is not pitching well. At all. He accounts for a third of their total walks and more than a quarter of the hit total. Nova’s been bad, but it doesn’t take much more than a glance at his prior achievement to remember the kind of gem he can spin with little notice. As far as fifth starters go, you could do much worse.

CC Sabathia has arguably pitched worse than Nova. The big left-hander is giving up home runs and extra base hits at an uncommon rate. The 21/3 strikeout to walk ratio suggests better days are ahead for the former Cy Young award winner. Yankees fans need to show a little bit more patience with their designated ace.

The real story of the Yankees rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. If the Yankees knew their Japanese import would be this good this quickly…well they probably assumed that, spending as much money as they did. It is still extremely early in his season and no team has seen Tanaka for a second time yet, but the Yankees drop-and-drive master seems even better than advertised.

His splitter remains a devastating weapon, earning more than its share of weak swings and even weaker contact against the overmatched Cubs yesterday. His kitchen sink approach gives him advantages that other pitchers simply don’t have, or don’t exploit against the best hitters in the world.

True to the form he showed during his big league debut, Tanaka continues using his big slow curve as a get-me-over offering early in at bats – flipping that 75 mph bender in as a first pitch strike. His slider wasn’t working in his first start but his subsequent outings show why he stuck with it that night in Toronto – it’s a terrific option he can throw for strikes as well as whiffs.

As the word gets out on Tanaka, hitters have a better chance of identifying his nasty splitter earlier in the process, meaning they can perhaps lay off it rather than harmlessly swinging over it as it dives out of sight. But Tanaka looks every bit the part of an ace so far – he counts 28 strikeouts against just two walks in his 22 big league innings.

He throws strikes with a variety of pitches. That’s a good combination! He keeps hitters off balance as well, thanks to the nice separation in velocities between his pitches. Not quite the same situation as Sabathia, who claims a similar K/BB ratio but allows more hard contact.

The Yankees will go as far as this starting staff can take them. The bullpen is…fine but the Yankees fate begins and ends with the starting five. If Nova shows he has a clue what he’s doing more often than not and CC Sabathia settles into a workable mid-rotation groove, the Yankees could ride Tanaka, Kuroda, and the incredible comeback story of Michael Pineda a long way.

Provided the lineup holes don’t gape too wide, of course. Losing 2-1 every night is now way for Yankees fans to live.