Masahiro Tanaka, a much-touted offseason purchase by the New York Yankees, has proven to be worth every penny one month into his first Major League Baseball season. And it’s a good thing for the Pinstripes, because they paid a record $175 million to lure him out of Japan.
On Tuesday, Tanaka improved to 3-0 this season with 7 1/3 dominant innings in a 9-3 victory over the archrival Boston Red Sox. With the victory, the somewhat-surprising Yankees are now 12-8, in first place in the American League East and 3 ½ games ahead of last-place Boston.
Tanaka has now won 31 consecutive regular-season decisions, straddling both sides of the Pacific. He set an Nippon Professional Baseball record by going 24-0 in 2013 and won his final four decisions in 2012.
He hasn’t missed a beat since taking on a considerable burden for baseball’s marquee franchise. In his four starts this season, he’s gone at least seven innings in each. His 2.15 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings pitched both rank among American League leaders. His pinpoint control has not disappointed, as he’s walked just two batters all season.
Tanaka had to share the spotlight Tuesday night as his first trip to historic Fenway Park also coincided with the return of former Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees’ other expensive offseason acquisition at seven years for $153 million, Ellsbury did his part by hitting a double, a triple and making a sparkling defensive play.
For Tanaka, ceding the center stage for the night works just fine, as he’s already besieged by media attention, particularly the Japanese press, which follows his every move. The obsession has reached lunatic levels, as reported by Mark Schreiber of the Japan Times.
It goes from the mundane (Tanaka’s choice of catcher) to helpful (avoiding sushi) to ridiculous (Tanaka’s PR person who “throws like a girl) to patently absurd (pillows).
Schreiber writes that the Japanese media has cautioned Tanaka to avoid the pillows in American hotels, “which tend to be too soft for Japanese. Noting that the Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish had developed a stiff neck last month causing him to be placed on the disabled list, Tanaka was advised to bring his own pillow along with him while the team is on the road.”
So far, Tanaka has negotiated every challenge with considerable aplomb. For a Yankees pitcher, Fenway Park is as difficult and hostile place as there is to take the mound, but he passed his first test with flying colors.
Boston manager John Farrell expressed his admiration for Tanaka’s seamless transition. Farrell was the Red Sox’s pitching coach when they acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007 as the first $100 million Japanese import. Farrell went through some frustrating times with Dice-K as he struggled to adapt.
“He’s been a highly talked-about pitcher from Japan,” Farrell said of Tanaka. “The thing that impresses you is how quickly he’s acclimated to the major leagues from a different culture.”
Tanaka’s devastating split-finger pitch has been as effective as advertised. But what makes him so baffling to hitters is that he has three other pitches – a fastball that tops out at 95 mph, a slider and a curveball. And he can put any of them on a dot.
Without a doubt, Tanaka is now the ace of the staff on baseball’s most fabled franchise after just one month. And at just 25 years old, his best days appear to be only ahead.
“I thought he would be pretty good but wow, I didn’t think he’d be this good,” said an anonymous MLB scout who previously spoke to The Diplomat about Tanaka. “But the thing that impresses me the most about him is his poise. This guy is just one cool customer.”
Tanaka’s supreme confidence has been a great asset as he deals daily with the white-hot glare of the spotlight from the media of two countries. After all, this is a man who showed up at his introductory press conference by way of a chartered Boeing 787 that carried only a small entourage and his dog.
Now if he’d just heed the unsolicited Japanese media advice to stay out of those pesky establishments with piano bars …