Masahiro Tanaka: The Yankees’ Imported Savior


The New York Yankees spent big money to bring Tanaka to the Bronx, so how is he doing so far? (courtesy Neier via wikicommons)


Through four starts, Masahiro Tanaka has been everything that the Yankees could have hoped for.

The New York Yankees spent big money to bring Tanaka to the Bronx, so how is he doing so far? (courtesy Neier via wikicommons)
The New York Yankees spent big money to bring Tanaka to the Bronx, so how is he doing so far? (courtesy Neier via wikicommons)

Although some questioned whether Tanaka would be closer to Rangers ace Yu Darvish or former-Red Sox bust Daisuke Matsuzaka, he has quickly shown that he will resemble the former – and potentially be better.

Nobody really knew how Tanaka would fare in the major leagues, where the ball is bigger and the hitters are better, but the Bombers’ $155 million man is proving to be worth every penny thus far, silencing doubters and passing every test thrown his way.

He won his major league debut in Toronto on Friday, April 4 before getting a no-decision in his Yankee Stadium debut against the Orioles in his next start. His second start in the Bronx proved to be much more impressive, as the rookie dominated the Cubs, holding them scoreless in his eight frames of work and earning his first home victory.

His most recent test, and possibly most difficult one, was facing the defending World Series Champion Red Sox at Fenway Park. Luckily for Yankee fans, the phenomenom passed with flying colors.

After the Yanks jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, Tanaka allowed back-to-back home runs to David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in the fourth inning.  He subsequently shut down the Sox and showed just how unflappable he is on the hill. He settled down and pitched into the eighth inning, allowing just those two runs in 7.1 innings.

Tanaka is undefeated in the big leagues, going 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA in his first month, donning the pinstripes. Considering that he was 24-0 last season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japan Pacific League, his last regular season loss was in August 2012.

The most surprising facet of Tanaka’s game has been his strikeout total. The 24-year-old has 35 strikeouts in 29.1 innings pitched, a Yankee record for a pitcher through his first four career starts. It’s also tied for the third-highest strikeout total in baseball history through four starts – Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg holds that record with 41.

Even more impressive has been his control. Like other Japanese pitchers, Tanaka has a wide array of pitches in his arsenal, but he has command of them all. He has walked just two batters thus far and only San Francisco starter Tim Hudson has fewer  among starting pitchers with at least four starts. Although Tanaka’s incredible 17.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is unattainable, he definitely has the command to keep the ball in the strike zone, throwing 70% of his pitches for strikes until this point of the season.

Tanaka’s critically acclaimed splitter was the topic of conversation early in the offseason and throughout Spring Training. He has shown why, regularly making good hitters look foolish in the box. It has been his second most-utilized pitch behind his fastball, thrown 22.2 percent of the time. The lethal split-fingered fastball has been his out pitch, as opponents are hitting meager .081 in two-strike counts.

Originally slated as the team’s number four starter, it is likely that Tanaka will have to carry a heavier load moving forward.

Yankees’ starter Ivan Nova has been diagnosed with a partially torn UCL and surgery has been recommended. If he opts to undergo Tommy John surgery, he will miss the rest of the 2014 season. Vidal Nuno, who tossed five scoreless innings in his first start on April 20 against the Rays, is expected to fill Nova’s spot in the rotation in his absence.

Carsten Charles “CC” Sabathia’s weight isn’t the only thing that is declining. His effectiveness and velocity are dropping at equally catastrophic rates, as the big lefty has struggled in the early part of 2014 much like he struggled last season. After posting a career-worst 4.78 ERA in 2013, Sabathia has an identical mark through his first five starts of this season.

Tanaka’s fellow countryman Hiroki Kuroda has also struggled. Kuroda, 39, was brutal after the All-Star break last year, going 0-6 with a 6.56 ERA in his final eight starts. He has done little to convince the Yankees that he is the same pitcher as he was in the first half of 2013, when he was 8-6 with a sparkling 2.65 ERA. Kuroda is 2-1 with a 4.07 ERA thus far, which is about what the Yankees can expect of him moving forward.

The other Yankees’ starter, Michael Pineda, is a feel-good story gone wrong. After missing two full seasons to injury, the 25-year-old looked poised to get his once-promising career back on track. He was excellent through his first three starts, going 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA and reminding people why he was an All-Star with the Seattle Mariners in 2011. In his final start, however, Pineda was tossed in the second inning after the Red Sox discovered that he had pine tar, an illegal substance, on his neck. This incident came after television cameras showed pine tar on his pitching hand in his previous start against Boston. He has been suspended ten games for his mindless transgressions, and he will need to prove to everyone that he can be an effective pitcher when he isn’t cheating upon his return.

So, although Tanaka’s first month has gone as smooth as possible, he has a lot of work ahead of him as the leader of the staff. He will need to keep up his outstanding pitching and carry the rotation if the Yankees want to play in October this year.