It is only a few weeks into the season and it is already easy to forget that Masahiro Tanaka is a rookie. The New York Yankees’ brightest star this season is only 25 years old, and while he has been a professional pitcher for his entire adult life, he is still in the midst of adjusting to a a new country and the best level of competition in the sport. After yet another dominant performance, Tanaka is making his way into the record books and showing everyone that he deserved the big contract the Yankees gave him.
If nothing else, scouts and fans who followed Tanaka’s career in Japan were aware that he would arrive in the majors with one legitimate weapon: a devastating split finger fastball. That splitter is the pitch that helped Tanaka strike out 8.5 batters per 9 innings in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. It has helped him succeed in the same fashion thus far in Major league Baseball, where his k/9 currently stands at a staggering 11.5. No one expects him to carry a rate quite that high, but the success he has had so far definitely needs acknowledgement.
Just how dominant that pitch has been cannot be understated. Opponents are batting just .111 against the pitch, with 10 strikeouts against just two hits. When Tanaka throws it out of the strikezone, or essentially where it cannot be hit, opponents have swung at it 57.5 percent of the time. In total, 35 percent of his splitters have resulted in a swinging strike. Worst of all for batters, Tanaka has shown the ability to sneak it in for a strike if they simply try to avoid swinging altogether.
The talent behind that pitch has put Tanaka into some very exclusive company. He is only the second pitcher in the modern era to strike out at least eight batters in his first three starts. His 28 strikeouts are the most ever accumulated by a Yankee in their first three major league games. Tanaka is now 2-0 on the season, after going a perfect 24-0 in Japan in 2013. He has not lost a regular season contest since 2012.
In defeating the Cubs, Tanaka became only the 15th Yankee in the last 100 years to pitch eight shutout innings, allow two or fewer each of hits and walks, and strikeout double digits. All of this has come within the first two weeks of Tanaka’s career. If anyone is wondering whether or not Tanaka can keep up the pace, take a look at his pitch repertoire. Tanaka throws a variety of fastballs to go along with his splitter. He also has a curve, slider, and change-up. He could probably go the entire season without repeating a pitch sequence identically. That variety will allow him to continue to pitch well even after he has been seen by teams a few times.
Tanaka is offering Yankee fans a great, young player to root for, something they desperately need on a roster that is going to be continuously revamped over the next few years. Players like him can put energy back into a fan base, much like Matt Harvey did for the Mets last season. Tanaka has been unlike anyone else so far in his career, and he seems more than capable of keeping it up. He may have made everyone forget that he has only just began his career, but it will not be easy to forget how dominant he has been.
Commentary by Brian Moore
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer covering New York Baseball