By Murray Chass on June 19, 2014

    Masahiro Tanaka is on pace for the greatest rookie pitching season since World War I.

    Mark Fidrych in 1976, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, Dwight Gooden in 1984—by October, Tanaka in 2014 could be the new go-to reference for immediate success to start a career.

    His most recent start, on Tuesday night against Toronto, is indicative of his rookie campaign thus far. The Yankees began a three-game series trailing the Blue Jays by 4.5 games in the division; they turned to their new ace in the first contest, and Tanaka didn’t disappoint. After surrendering a home run and two singles in the first inning, Tanaka pitched five scoreless frames, allowing just two more runners to reach scoring position and striking out 10 for the fifth time this year. The best offense in baseball could hardly even make contact, and three runs of support were enough for Tanaka, who earned his league-leading 11th win.

    Just 14 starts into his MLB career, Tanaka is the heavy favorite to win both the American League Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Award—he would be the first to win both trophies in the same year. He also leads two pitching Triple Crown categories (wins and earned run average) and sits just eight strikeouts behind David Price in the third; winning all three would be a first for a rookie and is a feat that has been accomplished almost exclusively by Hall of Famers.

    But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and give Tanaka a plaque in Cooperstown just yet. Instead, let’s appreciate just how good he has been for a first-year pitcher. Among qualified rookies, Tanaka’s 1.99 ERA ranks second in the last 100 years, barely behind Scott Perry’s 1.98 mark in 1918. Since the 1969 expansion, though, Tanaka has the best ERA with room to spare, besting Jose Fernandez’s 2.17 from last year. Beyond ERA, Tanaka tops every rookie pitcher from the last century in categories just about every fan can appreciate.

    He leads in traditional measures such as win-loss percentage, and at his current pace, he would end the season with 25 wins, breaking the current record of 22 set by Monte Weaver back during the Great Depression. Midway along the metrics continuum, Tanaka has the best rookie marks in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and at the most “advanced” end, he holds the all-time lead in ERA+, a metric that is relevant here because it aims to standardize a pitcher’s performance across eras. As a reference for just how unique Tanaka has been, the difference in ERA+ between him and the second-best rookie from the last century (Jose Fernandez) is the same as the career difference between David Price and Oliver Perez.

    Tanaka’s excellence has been much needed for the Yankees …

    Murray Chass

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