Why Masahiro Tanaka is the most important Yankee in the ALCS

Masahiro Tanaka is a big X-factor for the Yankees in the ALCS.

A day after wrapping up the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees announced their ALCS starting rotation on Thursday. Masahiro Tanaka will start Game 1 against the Houston Astros, followed by Luis Severino in Game 2, CC Sabathia in Game 3, and Sonny Gray in Game 4.

To put it bluntly, Tanaka can’t falter in Game 1.

We don’t mean that in the traditional “the Game 1 starter sets the tone for the whole series” sense, either. Certainly, there’s some truth to that. When you only need four wins and can’t lose more than three times, every game is important. But the Game 1 result isn’t necessarily what’s important for Tanaka.

What’s important is that he gets outs and goes deep into the game. If he does that and New York still loses, then things still shape up relatively well for the Yankees. If, however, the team wins despite a short, quick outing from its starter, we’ll still have reason to be pessimistic about New York’s hopes for the remainder of the series.

This all boils down to a very simple idea. The exceptionally talented Yankees bullpen has been stretched out in these playoffs. Tanaka and Severino did provide something of a break in Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS. Still, it’s a group that’s been heavily taxed.

New York’s relievers have been responsible for 27.1 of the 56 innings that the team has pitched in is six postseason games. That works out to nearly 49 percent (82 of 168) of the outs that Yankees have recorded this postseason. By contrast, the Astros bullpen has locked down more than 53 percent (54 of 105) of its team’s outs. Now, if a four percent gap doesn’t seem significant, consider some other things.

One, the Astros have played two fewer games than New York. Two, Houston clinched its ALDS over the Boston Red Sox on Monday, while he Yankees clinched on Thursday. The extra two days rest is darn significant. Lastly, two of the 4.2 innings that the Astros’ bullpen was called on to pitch on Monday were handled by Justin Verlander — a starting pitcher.

If Tanaka has a short outing on Friday night, then New York’s bullpen will be out of the frying pan and right back into the fire. If the relievers are not already tired, a long night on Friday will go a long way towards wearing them down for the rest of this series.

A tired bullpen for the Yankees will spell a lot of trouble in the series, even they still manage a Game 1 win.

During the regular season, Houston was second in the league in home runs (238) and first in all three slash categories at .282/.346/.478. The Astros also struck out fewer times than any team in the league. In its four playoff games, Houston has slashed at .333/.402/.527 and hit eight home runs. So, the regular season magic has not disappeared.

This is not the team you want to face with a tired bullpen.

The Yankees defeating Houston in the ALCS would be an upset. The Astros are the better team and have home-field advantage. But despite that, a path to New York winning this series does exist. We’re not expecting it, but it wouldn’t be the upset of the century, either.

But that path starts with Tanaka eating up some innings in Game 1. The Yankees have the arms to at least limit what the Houston offense can do. But if that’s going to happen, the relievers need to be well rested and sharp for the whole series.