After the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka from the Japanese League, GM Brian Cashman declared him “at best a number 3 starting pitcher.” Cashman’s intention was to relieve the pressure his new starter was about to face. After all, Tanaka had just closed the deal on a 7-year/$155 million contract, making him the highest paid athlete from overseas. The investment drew initial scrutiny as many of the past Yankees Japanese signings (Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa) did not pan out as planned. However, 40 games into the 2014 season, Tanaka is proving to be the game’s best pitcher.
Just eight starts into his Major League career, Tanaka is turning heads across the nation with his baseball prowess. He is 6-0, has not lost professionally in the regular season in nearly two years, and just threw his first shutout. Mixed with a Roger Clemens-type unhittable splitter, his low 90s fastball actually seems faster and has kept batters off balance throughout his starts. He is yet to allow more than three runs and his shortest outing was 6.1 innings. Tanaka makes quick work on the mound averaging just around 100 pitches per 7 innings. While he has made mistakes allowing 7 home runs through 58 innings, opponents are hitting only .214. The splitter is dancing the waltz around batters. Tanaka has been dominant even pitching in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He is on pace for 275 strikeouts, which would be the highest by a rookie in over three decades.
Yankees ace CC Sabathia just went down with an injury and his diagnosis could keep him out for at least a month. Ivan Nova is out for the year after blowing out his elbow. Tanaka has been thrust into the spotlight to carry the load for the rail-thin Yankees starting rotation but he has handled it better than ever. He has made the cultural adjustments to the food and different lifestyle in the States. The Major League baseball is slightly bigger than the ball in Japan but that has not affected Tanaka’s numbers. Tanaka has catapulted himself as the ace of the staff. New York knew they would be getting a really good pitcher but hardly expected him to be the toast of the city so early in his career. Tanaka has already earned the trust of his teammates and endeared himself to baseball fans as the ultimate competitor.
With the pressure of an entire nation on his back, Tanaka is also demonstrating the growth of baseball globally. Japan has been breeding MLB talent for years. If MLB ever makes the pitch for the first international team, Japan is likely the initial destination.
As the Yankees make a push for the playoffs, look for team to rely heavily on Tanaka. It is hard to imagine him going undefeated for the entire year but, at this rate, no team has figured out his splitter. He could very well win the AL MVP and Cy Young awards.