In 28 games in 2013 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s professional baseball league, Masahiro Tanaka compiled a 24-0 record with a 1.27 ERA. In 212 innings, Tanaka struck out 183 men while walking just 32. After signing an enormous contract with the New York Yankees in the off-season, Masahiro Tanaka has been just as dominant in his first month in the Majors, proving that he cannot seem to lose anywhere he plays.
Tanaka’s path to America was rather strange. After a complete reshuffling of the posting system between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the Golden Eagles were timid to send their superstar to the States, but they eventually gave in to his plea and posted their young right-hander. There was a bidding war, but eventually the Yankees gave him seven years and $155 million, which is the fifth-largest deal ever given to a pitcher.
Like any player who signs a big contract with the Yankees, his hype quickly became ire from the baseball populous. In the 21st century, the Yankees have become notorious for snatching up the game’s best free agents, which has left fans of other teams with unsettling feelings. However, due to MLB’s draft-pick compensation rules, which attempt to shirk the divide between the high and low-market teams, and the fact that all free agents are inherently old, this strategy has actually hurt the Yankees over the last decade. Tanaka is 25-years-old, so teams like the Yankees were willing to shell out a great sum of money for his services. Once Tanaka was a Yankee, he became overpaid and overrated in the eyes of many, and fewer people believed that he would be able to repeat the same level of success on baseball’s biggest stage.
In spring training, the fanfare for Tanaka was immense, but he still pitched fantastically to the tune of a 2-0 record with a 2.14 ERA in five appearances. Once the regular season rolled around, Tanaka was still dominant. In his first Major League start, he went seven innings, allowed two earned runs on six hits while striking out eight and zero walks en route to his first stateside win. His next start was similarly dominant, as he allowed three runs while striking out 10 in seven innings, but he was not able to earn his second win. The next time he pitched, he was on another level. In eight innings, Tanaka struck out 10 batters and allowed zero runs on two hits. Granted, he was playing the Cubs, but that type of outing is incredible for any pitcher, especially one making his third Major League start.
Masahiro Tanaka proved that he could not lose anywhere when he pitched against the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. He was able to pick up his third win after allowing two runs in 7.1 innings and striking out seven. Through his first four starts, he had struck out 35 and walked only two. In his next, and most recent, start, Tanaka was slightly less efficient, as he allowed two runs on five hits in 6.1 innings while striking out 11, but he walked four, tripling his total for the season.
Through five starts, Tanaka is 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA. He has 46 strike outs in 35.2 innings, good for an 11.6 K/9 rate, which is No. 5 in the Majors for qualified starting pitchers behind Stephen Stasburg, Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, and Zach Greinke. At the same time, Tanaka’s 1.51 BB/9 rate is the ninth-lowest in the MLB. Basically every statistic proves the same point; Tanaka has been one of baseball’s best pitchers this season. Eventually, he will lose a game, but his seamless transition from Japan to America has exceeded the expectations of everybody around the game. Right now, Masahiro Tanaka cannot lose a game, and only time can tell whether he can continue his dominance on a consistent basis.
Commentary by Jough Brasch