In Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees buy a ready-made ace
The black SUVs stood idle on a street in Beverly Hills, inert as a steel Stonehenge, though not nearly as mysterious. Inside these cars waited some of baseball's most powerful decision makers. If ever one picture told the definitive story of how cherished frontline starting pitching has come to be, this was it: In January, teams lined up in America's leading neighborhood of $10 million homes to persuade a 25-year-old righthander, fresh off a flight from Japan and eating sushi on a couch inside one of the mansions, to take nine digits' worth of their money.
It mattered not one unagi that the object of their attention, Masahiro Tanaka, had never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Nor that since he was a teenager, his arm has endured a massive workload that these same decision makers believe would wreck their own pitchers. Nor did it matter that the transition from playing baseball in Japan to playing in the United States is fraught with competitive and cultural differences that threaten the entire investment: The baseball itself, the competition, the schedule, the travel, the food, the paparazzi, the autograph-seekers, the toilets. Yes, the toilets.
Casey Close, Tanaka's agent, had made the ground rules clear to major league teams: There would be no Tanaka Tour. If you want Tanaka, you must come to Beverly Hills—Close borrowed the mansion of a fellow agent at Excel Sports—and make your best pitch. Over two days, each club was scheduled for an hour session, though when a meeting ran long, the SUVs began to back up.
No one was sure how high the bidding would go, but Tanaka was looking at Kardashian money. Teams would have to pay a $20 million posting fee to Tanaka's former club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, on top of Tanaka's contract. Roughly 10 teams lined up for the chance to sign him, including the Astros, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox and Yankees. (Close says some teams asked for and still retain anonymity.)
"It was like The Dating Game," recalls Arizona general manager Kevin Towers. "[Tanaka] is sitting there on the couch and then, 'Now it's bachelor number one!' You come down and sell your entire organization in 15 minutes."
Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick had read somewhere that Tanaka enjoyed golf, so he gave a detailed presentation on the courses around Phoenix. The D‑Backs also popped in a DVD that highlighted some of the area's cultural offerings that could make Tanaka feel at home, including a Japanese food market. (Towers jokes that they did not specify that it was the only Japanese food market.)
Twelve days after the Beverly Hills summit, Tanaka made his decision: He signed with the Yankees. They outbid the field, giving him $155 million over seven years, with a player opt-out clause after the fourth year. Including the posting fee, the Yankees' $175 million outlay represented the largest single investment in a pitcher in baseball history, with the exception of the $180 million Detroit committed to Justin Verlander in March 2013. (The Dodgers since blew past both contracts with a $215 million deal for Clayton Kershaw. All three megadeals cover seven years.)
Tanaka was the Yankees' most expensive bauble in a $491 million free-agent shopping spree that follows the team's worst season in 21 years (85-77). He brings with him a 24-0 record from 2013 and a split-fingered- fastball that Towers' scouts not only graded as a perfect 80 (on the scouts' traditional 20-to-80 scale) but also said was "probably the best" they've ever seen.
In signing Tanaka, New York put a price tag on the rarity of a premier pitcher hitting the market at 25. It also placed a $175 million bet. The bet is that when it comes to Tanaka, almost everything we think we know about developing pitchers—the "less is more" catechismal belief in pitch counts, innings limits, mechanics and pitch-selection—is dead wrong. Forget the food and the toilets. For Tanaka, the real drama when East meets West is what happens when pitching cultures collide.
Masahiro Tanaka is literally surrounded by Yankees history. On all four walls of a conference room at Steinbrenner Field, his new club's spring home, the Bronx version of Mount Olympus peers down upon him: Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, Maris, Jackson and Munson—at least in all their framed-and-matted, black-and-white glory.
"Looking at the names," Tanaka says through his interpreter, "I know most of them."
And will he someday be worthy of their company?
"I will try my best."
In Japan, a new baseball is a thing of beauty, honoring the country's regard for packaging aesthetics as well as the sport. Each ball is wrapped in a shiny square of silver foil, which preserves the leather's tackiness. Unlike major league baseballs, which need to be rubbed with a special mud to be deemed game-ready, a Japanese baseball is used immediately after it is unpackaged. It is a man-made pearl. Its built-in tackiness plays to the high art of pitching—the veneration of touch, feel and spin and those who master the craft.
Pitchers are exalted in Japan as a combination of craftsman and warrior; they are at the heart of the Japanese game. High school aces are assigned uniform number 1. In NPB, the very best aces wear number 18, as Tanaka did. (For the Yankees, he's chosen number 19 out of respect to his teammate, fellow countryman and elder, Hiroki Kuroda, the incumbent 18.)
"I used to kid," says Bobby Valentine, who managed seven seasons in the Pacific League, "that Japanese pitchers don't have good pickoff moves [because] they believe rules should be interpreted literally. The rule book says an at-bat does not come to completion until the batter has three balls and two strikes. So when the count is 3 and 2, the next pitch is the pitch of reckoning. The Kabuki theater on a baseball field is the climax of that. They want the best pitcher pitching to the best hitter on a 3‑and‑2 count.
"So I would go, 'Boys, I can't wait. You get a bonus if you get a guy out in three pitches or less.' What a weird look I would get. What kind of stupid hitter would do that? And everybody reads from the same script, including the umpire. Everyone wants to build the at bats as deep as possible."
Tanaka grew up playing catcher until his junior high school coach asked him to try pitching. "I was really happy when he told me to become a pitcher," says Tanaka. "Ever since I was in elementary school I've thought that pitcher was very cool."
And so launched yet another pitching career in Japan that, had it occurred in the States, would have been regarded as abusive. As a high school senior in 2006, Tanaka threw 742 pitches over six games in Japan's famed Koshien national tournament, obliterating the record of 643 that Daisuke Matsuzaka had set eight years earlier. (The Japanese are meticulous about counting—pitches, batting practice, bullpens, off-season- workouts, games, anything—but always as a measurement of prideful work, not in the manner of policing pitchers, as in America.)
A year later, Tanaka was pitching for the Eagles in the Pacific League, where he threw 186 1/3 innings at age 18. It was far more than anyone that young has ever thrown in the majors (the closest: 148 2/3 by Bob Feller in 1937) and a one-year workload that 25-year-old Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals still hasn't reached.
The innings and pitches just kept piling up. In one stretch of five starts in 2009, at age 20, Tanaka threw 124, 137, 142, 125 and 137 pitches. Angels ace Jered Weaver hasn't thrown 124 pitches in a game that many times in his entire eight-year career, covering 231 starts. Two years later, in just the second week of spring training, Tanaka threw 520 pitches over five throwing sessions that spanned seven days, capped by a 207-pitch bullpen only two days after a 120-pitch session.
Explained Tanaka after his 207-pitch marathon, "I wanted to find out if I could keep pitching using the [right] form despite throwing a lot of pitches. I wanted to throw a session where I was tired from the start."
"I did it, too," says Kuroda, 39, of 200-pitch bullpens. "It's part of the training. You are training not just your form but also your legs, to strengthen your body."
By the time Tanaka put himself up for auction in Beverly Hills, he'd thrown 1,315 total innings through age 24, a workload unheard of in the majors for any young pitcher over the past 40 years. The last player to be worked that hard that young was Frank Tanana, who debuted in 1973 at age 19 and whose shoulder was shot by the time he was 25.
"Probably the reason that [Japanese pitchers] can throw that much in games is that growing up it's part of the culture," says Tanaka. "In Japan, I didn't throw much in the bullpens compared to other Japanese pitchers. Now that I'm [in the U.S.], bullpen sessions are more like 35 pitches, but I feel no stress in the number of pitches throwing in the bullpen."
Reminded of his high school workload, Tanaka laughs. "Looking back on Koshien, I feel that was a lot. I probably wouldn't be able to do that now!"
The Japanese pitching culture was forged by men such as Keishi Suzuki, a 5-foot-11-inch lefthander who in 1966, at age 18, debuted in NPB with 189 innings. Just two years later, Suzuki threw 359 innings in a 130-game season, the equivalent of throwing 447 innings in a 162-game MLB season. He lasted 20 seasons, pitching until he was 37, accumulating 317 wins and 4,600 1/3 innings. Afterward, he became manager of the only team he ever pitched for, Kintetsu, where he unwittingly became one of the greatest agents of change in the cross-pollination of baseball cultures.
One of Suzuki's pitchers with Kintetsu was a righthander with a tornado-like delivery and suspect control named Hideo Nomo—and he took the Kabuki theater of the full count to ridiculous lengths. Nomo averaged five walks and 10 strikeouts for every nine innings pitched, a total he reached in 60 percent of his starts. Suzuki knew only the traditional way of throw, throw, throw, so he left Nomo in games to toss as many as 191 pitches. The manager liked to say, "To cure your pain, throw more." The author Robert Whiting characterized Suzuki's pitching philosophy even more bluntly: "Throw until you die."
Nomo's shoulder began to give out; he could not pitch the final two months of the 1994 season. He was 25 years old. He'd had enough. So he did something so contrary to the Japanese way of dutifulness to superiors that even his parents advised against it: He jumped to the major leagues. After signing with the Dodgers, Nomo posted two sensational years with Los Angeles. But in what has become a familiar pattern for Japanese pitchers who find initial success in the majors (Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu, Masato Yoshii...), his stuff and his arm health began to decline starting with his third year.
After the 2012 season, Tanaka informed the Eagles that he wanted to pitch in the majors and requested that they post him following their '13 campaign. He cut back on his bullpen sessions, and when he did throw them, he used a major league baseball to grow accustomed to it. In his final season with Rakuten, he went 24--0 with a 1.27 ERA. He didn't lose an outing until Game 6 of the Japan Series, a possible clincher for the Eagles. In that 4-2 loss to the Yomiuri Giants, he threw 160 pitches, refusing the entreaties of his manager, Senichi Hoshino, to bail out after 120.
"He wasn't in the mood to be replaced," the manager told reporters. "He felt like he wanted to be on the mound until the end. I think it's an ace's will."
Japanese teams can alter their rosters within a series, with starting pitchers typically removed the day after an outing in favor of a fresh arm. But Tanaka would have none of it. He told Hoshino he was good to go for Game 7, then came out of the bullpen to throw 15 pitches and close a series-clinching win.
"I can't say I was at my best physically," Tanaka says, "but I knew we had one more game to go, and I had to make myself ready for it. I didn't let my mental part slip away. Usually for starters, once the start is over, you relax. But I didn't let that happen and kept my mentality."
Major League Baseball began keeping official data on pitch counts in 1999. That year, pitchers aged 24 and younger threw 120 or more pitches in a game 87 times. Nobody paid much attention. The pitch count was little more than a novelty.
Four years later, Cubs manager Dusty Baker rode the young power arms of Kerry Wood, 26, and Mark Prior, 23, down the stretch and to within five outs of the World Series. Individually, Wood and Prior threw 120 pitches or more in nine of their 11 combined starts that September and twice more in the postseason. Both subsequently broke down with arm injuries and were never the same.
The grind and physical violence of pitching has always carried injury risk, but in 2003 critics had a new, readily available and easily understood measurable to explain what sometimes is unexplainable. Never mind that Prior taxed his shoulder with poor mechanics. Or that Wood threw a violent cross-body breaking ball. The pitch count was easier to understand than biomechanics. The demise of Wood and Prior sent a chill through the industry.
The next year saw only 27 games in which a pitcher younger than 25 threw 120 pitches. Such outings have since become almost extinct—there were just four in '12, seven in '13. From '09 through '13, Tanaka threw at least 120 pitches in a start 47 times, a workload that major league teams would consider ludicrous for a pitcher not yet 25 years old. During that same stretch in the majors, the most such high-volume games by pitchers that young was just five, by the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo.
What began with the pseudo-science of pitch counts soon gained scientific support. Research by Glenn Fleisig, James Andrews and their colleagues at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham showed the two greatest risk factors for pitching injuries to be overuse and poor mechanics. Young pitchers especially were at risk. In a 2011 study, the institute recommended that "pitchers in high school and younger pitch no more than 100 innings in competition in any calendar year. Some pitchers need to be limited even more, as no pitcher should continue to pitch when fatigued."
Has this conservatism worked? A hitter would tell you yes. Pitchers dominate the game unlike anything we've seen in more than 20 years. It is harder to get a hit today than at any time since the DH was established in 1973. Rises in velocity and in the depth of specialized bullpens have created a new paradigm that works: More pitchers with more stuff being asked to work less. Still, injuries mount. One out of every three active major league pitchers has had Tommy John surgery. About 40 percent of starting pitchers will go on the disabled list.
Meanwhile, in Japan, despite all that throwing, "the good pitchers start the season and end the season," reports Valentine. "There weren't teams that fell out of the race because ace pitchers got hurt. I didn't have any arm injuries in six, seven years."
How could this be? Valentine suggests that the Japanese throwing program ensures a survival of the fittest. NPB is a league of survivors. "They do it in Little League, they do it in high school," he says of the prolific throwing. "So the weak fall by the wayside. Kids get hurt by 12 or 13."
Another part of the equation: NPB operates on a much smaller scale. Its 12 teams play, on average, a 144‑game schedule, requiring some 1,728 starts, compared with 4,860 in MLB. Pitchers enjoy more recovery time in Japan. Mondays tend to be built-in off days, meaning that pitchers typically throw with six days of rest rather than the standard four in MLB. Teams do not travel across time zones. Pacific League hitters have less power than American League hitters (though they strike out less). The grind of major league baseball is simply harsher. That is why Tanaka—like the Rangers' Yu Darvish and Kuroda before him—quickly adopted an Americanized, save-your-bullets training regimen.
On Feb. 15, for instance, in his first official bullpen session as a Yankee, Tanaka threw 32 pitches, followed by two days off. On the same day, Kuroda threw 36 pitches, as he does every bullpen session. The next day at Rangers camp, Darvish threw 34 pitches, as he usually does.
Meanwhile, on the very day Darvish threw, halfway across the world, in the training camp of the Yokohama Bay Stars, a 6-foot righthander named Daisuke Miura threw what Daily Sports in Japan reported was a personal high for a bullpen session this year: 301 pitches. That marathon increased his workload in the first 16 days of camp to 1,973 pitches.
Miura is 40 years old. He is entering his 23rd season.
Two weeks before he addressed 200 reporters in English ("I am very happy to be a Yankee") at his introductory press conference in New York, Tanaka spoke at a symposium at Edogawa University in Chiba, Japan. The moderator asked him if he had "anything to say to our students."
"It is important to see things from different angles," he told the crowd. "You will probably make mistakes, but if you can use that to your advantage, then your mistakes do not go to waste. Keep your focus wide, and do not get stuck on one thing."
It is not just when and how much to throw; everything is different now for Tanaka. The way autograph-seekers tailed his car in Tampa. ("That I did not experience in Japan.") The way reporters have access to clubhouses where players change. ("I just change as I normally do; if people want to watch, feel free.") The way American roadways seem overwhelming. ("As of now I have no intention of driving.") The way American toilets lack the amenities of Japanese plumbing fixtures. (Asked to identify the most striking difference between the two countries, Tanaka thought for a moment and replied, "The washlet is a system in Japan where you press a button and water comes out and washes your ass. Not having that is a big difference.")
Two years ago the Rangers invested $107.7 million in Darvish, including a $51.7 million posting fee. As a rookie, he won 16 games with a 3.90 ERA. Last year, he improved that ERA by more than a run, to 2.83, led the majors in strikeouts (277) and was voted the AL Cy Young Award runner‑up. Asked to identify what adjustments he made to account for such improvement, Darvish replies, "Two main things: I was able to make the adjustment with the American baseball and also American culture itself. My first year I couldn't eat sandwiches. The second year they started to taste really good, so I was able to eat a lot. The food was the biggest adjustment."
The Yankees have been surprised at how quickly Tanaka has adjusted. He is picking up some English. (He interrupted a reporter's question by proudly announcing that he recognized some of the words because "I have been watching the Olympics.") He regularly jokes with teammates and reporters. Says New York GM Brian Cashman, "He's open to change and very much at ease. ... He's really like any other pitcher now—the only thing that would prevent him from being successful is the pitcher-hitter confrontation."
Though Tanaka throws as many as seven pitches, he has two elite wipeout offerings: The splitter and the slider. The former represents another collision of pitching cultures. American coaches generally discourage using the splitter out of fear that it increases torque on the elbow; some teams even take it away from young pitchers. Last year, only two American-born pitchers threw splitters even 15 percent of the time, about how often Tanaka throws it: Jeff Samardzija and Dan Haren.
In Japan, says Valentine, "everyone throws the splitter. The star high school kid throws the splitter. If I had 14 on my staff, maybe three didn't throw the splitter."
"I don't see anything about throwing the splitter to cause an injury," says Kuroda, who has thrown more combined professional innings than any active major league pitcher except Mark Buehrle. "I always have thrown the splitter and never had any problems."
Because Americans discourage the pitch, Tanaka has a distinct advantage over major league hitters: They are not trained to hit it. They don't see it regularly. Against the six pitchers who threw it the most last year, for instance, major league hitters batted no better than .201 against the pitch. (Kuroda and the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma threw it most often.)
As much attention as Tanaka's splitter gets, his slider, which he throws more often, is underrated. Yankees scout Brandon Duckworth (Tanaka's teammate last year with the Eagles) needed to watch him throw only one live batting practice session this spring to see that Tanaka's slider had even more bite than he remembered. "Best I've seen it," says Duckworth. The slicker surface of the major league ball creates later and sharper tilt on the pitch.
"If you get a good grip of the ball, the slider is more crisp than in Japan ... a better slider," adds Tanaka. "The problem could be that sometimes the balls can slip." Says Darvish, who has held major league hitters to a .160 average on his slider, "I totally agree."
"Very few pitchers throw a slider where the dot disappears," says Yankees special assistant Trey Hillman. "A hitter looks for that dot on the baseball as it spins to identify the slider. But only a few pitchers spin the slider so fast that you can't see the dot. I've only had two of them: Darvish and Zack Greinke. Now I'd put Tanaka's slider with them. It's that good."
If there is vulnerability in Tanaka's repertoire, it is in his fastball, even though he has good velocity and commands it well on both sides of the plate. Unlike most American pitchers, who stay tall through their deliveries to generate a downward plane and movement on their fastballs, Tanaka is a drop-and-drive pitcher, a technique that generates power through the legs but results in a lower release point, which limits the downward plane of his fastball.
"He's definitely not Darvish," says one talent evaluator for a team that bid on Tanaka. "We see him as a No. 2. He's not a No. 1. His fastball is pretty flat. There's a good chance in Yankee Stadium he's going to give up a lot of homers to lefties. But he's got a legit split, he commands really well, and he's a competitor."
Says another evaluator from an interested team, "With his stuff he immediately becomes the best pitcher on the Yankees' staff—and it's not close."
Tanaka was working out in the Yankees' spring training weight room one day last month when suddenly a song by the Japanese bubble-gum pop group Momoiro Clover Z, "Ikuze! Kaito Shojo," blasted through the room's speakers. Kuroda had helped arrange the music selection, knowing that Tanaka is a big fan of the five-girl group, which follows in the lineage of the Spice Girls with lines such as "There's nothing we love more than putting all our energy into/Singing! Dancing! Smiling!" There is no irony in Tanaka's adoration of their music. There is a lightheartedness about him.
"He is not just open to change, he is happy about it," says Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "He's excited, like when you look forward to a new adventure. He's ready for this."
The true test comes over time. He will have shorter recovery periods between facing more powerful lineups over a longer season. And, at least to an American observer, all those pitches and all those innings at a young age could be ominous. An executive from another club that bid on Tanaka was asked how much the workload scared him. "A lot," he said. "But he's young enough that you can expect probably three good years. Hey, everything scares you with pitching. The prices scare you. There are no pools of players without risk."
What exactly is the risk? Who really knows? The more we collect data—pitch counts, innings, motion capture, biomechanical studies, military-grade measurements of velocity, spin rates and release points—the more we define what we don't know. The mystery of pitching is eternal: Some pitchers get hurt and some don't. Art does not surrender fully to science. Applied against Western philosophy, Tanaka is a $175 million bet. Viewed from the East, he is exactly what an ace should be: What survives from rigorous training. Kuroda is forged from the same crucible. And still he pitches, with no major scars. In the past 21 years, only Randy Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Kuroda have thrown 200 innings in the majors at ages 36, 37 and 38. Who really knows, indeed.
Like an ancient explorer heading toward the horizon's end, Tanaka is enthused about the mystery of it all. In the conference room of Steinbrenner Field, the most time Tanaka takes before answering a question occurs when he is asked what he regards as his biggest challenge. He closes one eye like a marksman, as if to focus on an answer hanging somewhere in the air. He purses his lips. "Hmmm..."
Finally, he decides on this: "Everything feels different from Japan. I feel it's important for me to go through the experience. What's normal in Japan may not be normal in the U.S. I want to experience it all, and through life experience I like to learn.
"I never think, I've always done things this way, so that's the way I will do it here. That's not the way I think. But when I pitch here, there are things I don't want to change. As far as going through daily practices and things like that? There's no stress on me."
A baseball in a shiny silvery sheathing, like a 25-year-old ace pitcher up for bid, may be a beguiling aesthetic. But the true beauty of it comes in the unwrapping.