Why the Yankees are lucky to have Masahiro Tanaka

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New York Yankees Masahiro Tanaka
Tanaka looking to make his mark in a Yankees jersey back in 2014

It has been quite the baseball career thus far for 31-year-old Japanese starting pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka. Having rose to stardom at high school, becoming the most highly rated eligible player to be picked in the 2006 Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Draft, four leading teams chose Tanaka as their first-round pick. Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles were the lucky team to draw the winning straw and, as they say, the rest is history in the hectic world of NPB.

By 2009, Tanaka was starting to become utterly dominant as the Golden Eagles’ starting pitcher. He pitched a four-hit complete-game shutout in his first appearance of the 2009 campaign and bagged monthly Most Valuable Player (MVP) recognition in the Pacific League for the first time in his professional career. Wind the clock forward four years and Tanaka set another incredible NPB record, appearing in 21 successive victories in the same season. It was, in fact, a 25-game winning streak when you include his appearance in four straight wins at the end of the 2012 campaign.

Caption: The Golden Eagles’ jersey was kind to Tanaka, earning him a move to the MLB

Nevertheless, Tanaka’s form for the Golden Eagles was forcing representatives from America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) to sit up and take notice. Throughout Tanaka’s remarkable 2013 campaign, which saw him bag his second prestigious Sawamura Award, he was watched repeatedly by MLB scouts. The Golden Eagles appeared happy to allow Tanaka to achieve his dream of playing in the MLB, by posting Tanaka to the MLB for what seemed like a paltry fee of $20 million during the offseason.

Tanaka couldn’t turn down the Yankees when they came calling

The Golden Eagles made all 30 teams in the MLB aware of Tanaka’s availability, giving them a 30-day period to try and come to an agreement with Tanaka and his agent. Six teams courted Tanaka during this window, with the iconic Yankees standing out on the page for Tanaka as his number-one choice. He would eventually sign on the dotted line for a seven-year contract worth an incredible $155 million.

It’s hard to believe that Tanaka has been part of the Yankees’ make-up since 2014. Six seasons in a Yankees jersey is no mean feat, certainly for an import from Japan. Tanaka arrived in the Big Apple as a fresh-faced 25-year-old. When it comes to the 2020 MLB campaign, he will be entering his 31st year. It proved to be an up-and-down debut season in 2014 for Tanaka, ending the campaign with an elbow injury.

2015 was another season hampered by injury issues. Tanaka was shown faith by Joe Girardi, selected as the Opening Day starter. However, as time wore on, Tanaka sustained forearm and wrist issues. Again, Tanaka’s doctors opted against surgery, despite calls from many in the sport for him to go down that route. Meanwhile, a hamstring strain also forced him out of some regular-season games.

2016: Tanaka’s breakthrough year in a Yankees jersey

The following year felt like Tanaka’s genuine “breakthrough” season in a New York Yankees jersey. The Japanese ace will have been fully aware of the fourth season opt-out clause penciled into his contract, which could have allowed him to release himself from the deal. Fortunately for Masahiro and his connections, he made a career-high 31 starts in the 2016 campaign, recording career-best statistics for innings pitched, wins, strikeouts and WAR, ranking him as the third-highest in the American League.

Once again, 2017 looked like being another positive start for Tanaka after an encouraging Spring Training camp. Yet despite having been named Opening Day starter for a third successive season, the Japanese took longer than anticipated to get going. That was until he achieved only the second complete-game shutout of his career against Boston, throwing only 97 pitches. Unfortunately for Tanaka, the remainder of his 2017 season was blighted by inconsistency. MLB analysts alerted fans to Tanaka’s “flat” slider that was beginning to be picked off all too easily by hitters. Some pundits believed Tanaka needed further Tommy John’s surgery, but both he and the Yankees vehemently denied that he was playing through the pain barrier.

Due partly to a lack of form and the rapid ascent of fellow pitcher Luis Severino, Tanaka wasn’t named as the Opening Day starter in 2018 and was forced to watch Severino run the show on most occasions that season. Severino would go on to be named in that season’s MLB All-Star Game, seemingly cementing his place as a starting pitcher ahead of Tanaka. However, Severino’s loss was Tanaka’s gain at the start of this season. A rotator cuff problem forced Severino onto the sidelines, giving Tanaka his fourth season as an Opening Day starter.

Tanaka performs when it matters in the postseason

Tanaka has featured quite considerably again in 2019, but his inconsistencies once again reared their ugly head, particularly in one encounter against Boston where he allowed 12 home runs – the most runs allowed by a Yankees pitcher in almost a century. With a career-long ERA of 3.75 in a Yankees jersey, it’s safe to say that Tanaka’s statistics put him safely as a number-two pitcher. Nevertheless, it must be said that Masahiro has never let the team down through the years and it seems there is something about the MLB postseason that gets him going and refocuses the mind.

It seems like postseason is when Tanaka really comes to life. In the first three games of this postseason, Tanaka had allowed only a single earned run from 11 innings, underlining his reliability when the going gets tough. After seven postseason outings, Tanaka became the first pitcher in MLB postseason history to allow two runs or less in each game. That’s not all – in the 2019 postseason thus far he has also pitched the third-lowest ERA ever, coming in at just 1.32 ERA with only Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson ever managing to better that.

What is Tanaka’s legacy likely to be at the Yankees? His remarkable consistency in the postseason when it really matters, for sure. He is a fierce competitor that is capable of making at least 30 appearances per year and his battling spirit and experience could still be vital to the Yankees’ roster in the years to come. Although Tanaka enters the final year of his seven-year contract next season, it would seemingly make sense to try and retain Masahiro’s services to act as a useful foil for the up-and-coming core of Yankees pitchers.

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