One of the New York Yankees’ big acquisitions this past offseason was Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old right-handed pitcher from Japan. Tanaka played his entire professional career for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, who won last year’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league championship. Looking at his numbers ahead of his first major league start, Tanaka projects to be a very good player.
As a professional in Japan for seven full seasons, Tanaka is coming to Major League Baseball (MLB) with a lot more experience than a high school or even a college draft pick would. Between that and his good size, 6’2″ and 205 pounds, Tanaka is certainly a major league ready prospect. Even though they had to pay a premium to acquire Tanaka, with a seven year and $120 million contract, plus a $20 million posting fee paid to Rakuten for the right to acquire him, the Yankees may make out well. Tanaka is much younger than most free agent pitchers. Major league teams do not usually let quality young arms even reach free agency, let alone leave. Clayton Kershaw, for example, signed his $215 million contract at age the same age as Tanaka, but before ever becoming a free agent.
There is, obviously, some gambling involved when a pitcher arrives in MLB untested, but his stats and profile project well. The 2013 season was a perfect one for Tanaka, as he went 24-0 and his team won the championship. Tanaka’s ERA has been below 2.00 each of the last three seasons, and his strikeout to walk ratio for his career is an outstanding 4.5. One can reasonably expect those statistics to level out against major league competition, but Tanaka’s physical tools should translate well.
Tanaka can reach into the mid-90’s with his fastball, but his biggest strength is the movement he gets on his split-finger. The ball dives hard, and as he showed in spring he can toss it for a strike to surprise hitters if they try to simply lay off of it. It could potentially be one of the best out-pitches in baseball. Tanaka also has a good slider, and will throw a curveball from time to time. The strong movement he generates on his pitches, combined with his quirky, slow and overhand windup, will help him miss a lot of bats.
Something to watch for is whether he can stay confident enough to stay in the strike zone if he gets hit hard in any of his starts. Tanaka was such a dominant pitcher in Japan that, in spite of his very apparent competitive attitude, he may be not used to any kind of failure. In the majors, it is always going to happen from time to time, no matter how good the pitcher. Remaining confident and attacking is vital for Tanaka to continue his success.
The Yankees begin a new series against the Blue Jays Friday evening, and Tanaka will be on the mound in pinstripes for the very first time. Seeing how someone as great as Tanaka adjusts to the majors is a must watch for anyone, not just Yankee fans. Tanaka has all of the necessary physical traits and skills to succeed in MLB just as he did in Japan.
Commentary by Brian Moore