The Yankees spent money this offseason like Bill Gates with only a week to live. They acquired a lot of sexy names with big-time, bubble gum card games. They picked exquisite fruits from all of MLB’s free agent trees in hopes of quickly returning to the top of the baseball food chain after uncharacteristically missing the playoffs in 2013. The finest of those free agent fruits came in the form of Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, who the Yankees signed to a $155 million contract without ever seeing him throw a pitch in an MLB game – until Saturday.
Tanaka, who went 24-0 last season as MVP of Japan’s Pacific League, threw two scoreless innings in his spring debut, striking out three in a 4-0 win against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Derek Jeter’s Thursday return garnered serious national media attention and a slimmed down CC Sabathia looking more like J.J. Walker, definitely sparked some conversation, but Tanaka’s performance was huge on an international scale as he is the next generation of highly-coveted Japanese pitchers to enter the MLB with the expectations and paycheck of a 10-year veteran.
Before Saturday it was all hype. Tanaka was a multi-million dollar mystery with a track record of dominance overseas. As is the case when one of Japan’s finest settles into his pinstripes and begins a new chapter in his baseball life, the Japanese and American media must be accommodated as well as the interested Japanese baseball fans.
On Saturday, both Sabathia and Jeter took a backseat to Tanaka, who had MLB teams stumbling over themselves and emptying their wallets for a crack at a 25-year-old hurler with a splitter to rival Curt Schilling's.
The media throng was thick and despite the fact that the spring training game began at 3 a.m. Sunday in Japan, TV stations still broadcasted the contest and Japanese fans watched in abundance, as a who’s who of Japanese stars were on display at some point. Tanaka was preceded on the mound by Yankees hurler Hiroki Kuroda and the legendary Ichiro Suzuki played right field. Former Yankees slugger and World Series champ Hideki Matsui, who helped recruit Tanaka to the Yankees, threw batting practice.
Tanaka put his seven-pitch arsenal on chill and relied on his fastball and splitter throughout his two-innings of work. The YES Network says Tanaka throws a four-seam fastball 35.1 percent of the time, his slider 25.6 percent of the time, his closer pitch (splitter) 18.2 percent of the time and a two-seamer 14.1 percent of the time. He also has a curve, cutter and change that he mixes in.
Tanaka surrendered a pair of singles but his splitter was as advertised and surprisingly filthy for so early in the spring. His fastball was buzzing in the mid 90s and the Phillies Darin Ruf, who greeted Tanaka with a single after falling behind 0-2, had high praise for the hurler’s repertoire. When asked what pitch Tanaka threw him, Ruf said, “I have no idea what that pitch was. I didn’t even see it, my head was in left field.”
Tanaka retired the next two batters on weak fly balls to Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner. He closed the inning by blazing a 94 mph heater past Cesar Hernandez on a 3-2 pitch.Tanaka picked up steam in the sixth, his final inning of work. He dusted off left-handed hitter Ben Revere with a nasty splitter that tailed away for the first out. After serving up an 0-2 single to Ronny Cedeno he handcuffed Domonic Brown with a "Mariano Rivera Special" – a high 89 mph cutter up and in for his final strikeout before getting Kelly Dugan to sky out.
Tanaka gives you the impression that he's the real deal. Manager Joe Girardi may be projecting him as a No. 3 starter to temper the high expectations, but Tanaka has ace stuff and second-tier pitchers don’t usually have an entire spring training stadium packed to capacity. Secondary options in the rotation don’t create a feeling of electricity running through everyone from the announcer to the fans. Approximately ten percent of the world's active volcanoes are found in Japan.
The Yankees current ace, Sabathia says Tanaka's presence was like a spring training eruption.
“He was impressive, “Sabathia told the YES Network. "There was a buzz around the ballpark.”
YES announcer Michael Kay has witnessed thousands of Grapefruit League games. He said during the telecast that the atmosphere "seemed like more than just your average spring training game.”
The Yankees are banking on Tanaka being more than just an average pitcher. From 2012 to 2013, he won a Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB)-record 26 consecutive decisions, which included a 1.27 ERA last season. To top it off, his wife is Japanese pop idol Mai Satoda of Hello! Project group Country Musume.
Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish might be the best Japanese pitcher in MLB history, since invading US soil with his rockstar resume and boss pitching acumen. He's "jokingly" said he thinks Tanaka is overpaid, which sounds like a bit of home turf-hate because Darvish has already put it down in the majors, striking out 277 hitters last season, yet he recently signed for a third of what Tanaka got (6-years, $56 million).
Thirty-one pitches can’t tell you everything about a pitcher, but Tanaka is supposed to be nice with it and he didn’t do anything on Saturday to slow his metropolitan hype train. If anything, expectations will be higher next time. The electricity is back in the BX. The streets will be talking about Jeter’s swan song and Beltran’s waning c’hip dreams. Radio pundits will rave about Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner’s speed and Brian McCann’s Thurman Munson-like possibilities at the backstop.
In a city full of champions and big shots, however, the trials and tribulations of Tanaka will remain the story that the international baseball world is talking about. The true test of his pedigree will be when he hits the dog days of August, the Yankees are battling for a division crown and he gets laced for six runs in four innings of work. How will the high-priced mound-marauder respond? Tanaka's already got the glory. Only time will tell if he’s got the guts.