When the idea that Rakuten Golden Eagles’ ace Masahiro Tanaka would hit the market this past offseason, speculation ran wild.
Arguably the best pitcher available, Tanaka’s hype did not go undervalued, as the young right-hander from Hyōgo, Japan, went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. And combine those regular-season efforts with the playoffs, he went an astonishing 30-0, en route to the Golden Eagles’ first title.
Posted this past winter for MLB teams to commence the bidding, the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Yankees all sought Tanaka’s services. However, New York – being the boss hogs that they are – swooped in and pocketed the highly-touted Japanese hurler. And since, its been history.
History, because he’s making it. History, because that’s what he’s doing to hitters. History, because he’s molding into quite possibly the best signing New York has ever made.
Projected to be the Yanks’ third or fourth starter, Tanaka has quickly become the ace of New York’s injury-riddled staff, and displayed why he was paid that much.
Posting a record of 9-1 and a 2.02 ERA, Tanaka is currently tied for fifth in the majors with 92 strikeouts – not bad for a rookie. And not bad for somebody who had skepticism as to how he’d transition to the bigs, after facing way less accomplished hitters in Japan, and using a smaller ball. What’s more impressive is the opposition is batting just .218 against him, which is phenomenal for a first-year starter.
What makes Tanaka so special is his composure though.
For example: despite giving up a leadoff home run to ex-Yank Melky Cabrera in the first inning of his first start, Tanaka dug deep, took deep breaths and struck out eight batters in seven innings. If Tanaka gets into trouble, he adjusts. That’s what makes him so fascinating, is that even in dire situations, he’ll execute a different approach.
Buckling down in run-scoring scenarios is tough for any pitcher, but Tanaka is excellent at it. He doesn’t give in when counts go up, crumble under pressure, or not challenge the hitter – he enhances his pitches. There’s obviously a direct correlation to what hitters are batting against him and how he’s performing. Tanaka’s been the guy.
Then there’s his sinker. Oh my lord does this thing drop off.
Most pitchers have a curveball – which Tanaka holds in his repertoire as well – but not many hold a sinker that just dies right before it hits home-plate. It’s like somebody is positioned up high and just snipes it before the ball reaches the plate. Personally, I’ve never seen such a ball fall completely off the face of the earth as Tanaka’s sinker does. And it leaves batters off-balance, because they’ll anticipate Tanaka’s sinker, only to freeze ’em via a fastball.
Tanaka started the season 8-0, which in retrospect, left him 38-0 with the carryover from his last season in Japan; however, because he didn’t receive run support, fell to the Cubs in May – of all the teams. Regardless, the Japanese dynamo is clearly the Yanks’ No. 1 man. You can make the argument Tanaka is the best pitcher in the league, which is amazing.
For all the criticism he got before he even threw a pitch, Tanaka’s defied the skepticism and become a better version of Rangers’ ace Yu Darvish. He’s still got the rest of the season, so I’ll reserve all god-like comments about him until I get a full evaluation of the guy, but so far, it’s difficult to not marvel at his production. Although there’s a lot more starts for him to come, you got to think he’s going to get better – because he has so far.
With Michael Pineda and Sabathia on the shelf till July, and Ivan Nova out for the season, New York’s reliance on Tanaka is through the roof. Yet, thus far, Tanaka hasn’t wilted, and been more dependable than first thought.
When it’s all said and done, we could be seeing the first Japanese Cy Young Award recipient. And right now, we can’t think he won’t garner the honor.
The scary thing is he doesn’t settle. Neither does general manager Brian Cashman, who is smiling somewhere.