Now that the New York Yankees have agreed to part with a whopping $175 million in order to fit Masahiro Tanaka for pinstripes, baseball fans and observers will spend the next several years trying to figure out if “Ma-kun” was worth the hefty price tag.
Because that can’t be answered anytime soon, the focus for now will center around what exactly the Yankees are getting.
Names like Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa will be bandied about ad naseum as measuring sticks early on, despite them collectively sharing little in common with Tanaka other than being Japanese pitchers who have been posted, until Tanaka begins to forge his own MLB identity.
“I think he’s worth it,” an MLB scout told The Japan Times. “Tanaka is way better than Matsuzaka. I think the New York Yankees have made a very good investment, although there are some risks.”
Tanaka certainly has the talent to live up to being a $100 million man — the Yankees are quite literally banking on it actually.
The 25-year-old was a cut above in Japan, 24-0 with a save and a 1.27 ERA last season, and 53-9 with a 1.44 ERA over 611⅓ innings since 2011. From 2011-2013, Tanaka made 77 appearances for Rakuten, notching strikeout totals of 241, 169, and 183, while allowing more than two earned runs just nine times.
Tanaka replied, “fastball,” at a news conference on Thursday when asked what he thought his first pitch in the majors would be, but it’s his splitter that’s expected to be the main attraction.
Tanaka can command the splitter on both sides of the plate and throws his slightly faster than those of new teammate Hiroki Kuroda, former Rakuten teammate Hisashi Iwakuma, currently of the Seattle Mariners, and Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox, a trio of Japanese major leaguers who have had recent success with the pitch.
The arm speed, movement and consistency with which Tanaka can wield the splitter makes it a nightmare for hitters, who also have to be on the lookout for his fastball.
“That’s his money pitch,” the scout said. “He can use the fastball, he can use the slider, all these other pitches, but that’s his main pitch. I don’t know if anyone in MLB can throw a splitter with that quality.”
Tanaka figures to be effective if he can keep his power stuff down and whip the splitter around the way he did during his seven seasons in Japan. Still, he’ll have to make adjustments in the majors, especially after hitters make their initial adjustments to him.
“If he pitches exactly the way he pitched in Japan, he could get by,” the scout said. “But in the initial stage with (Hideo) Nomo, people tried to figure him out. Once they figured him out, he was less effective, although he did well. It could be the same thing with Tanaka. They will catch up to him.
“The first year, it’s not just about being in a different league. There’s culture, teammates, the language, all these factors are involved. Purely from the baseball standpoint, he might be effective, but that mystique of him is going to disappear as he starts playing games.”
New York pitchers and catchers report to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, for spring training on Feb. 14, and from there Tanaka and the Yankees will try to map out a strategy that gets the most out of his skills on the MLB level.
The right-hander has been going through his usual offseason workouts in Sendai, though lately he’s been doing so with an MLB ball, which differs slightly from the NPB ball and has reportedly added some unexpected movement to some of his pitches, including a rising motion on his cutter that caused Eagles pitcher Manabu Mima to yell out in surprise earlier in the week.
“Nothing really special,” Tanaka said of his workouts. “I just I practiced with the MLB official ball. Everything is new to me, so I’ll get used to one thing at a time.”
Tanaka will make his first foray into the majors under an intense spotlight and a media crush he’s never experienced before. How he handles it all, especially early on, he said he feels no pressure, could yield hints on what returns New York can expect in the future.
“I’m a rookie on the Yankees,” Tanaka said. “I have to experience a lot of things. It’s not first time playing baseball. I would like to perform the way I’ve usually been able to perform on the mound.”