Better than Yu? Mixed reviews for Masahiro Tanaka, newest Yankee

Wednesday January 22nd, 2014

Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees.
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

The first story to tell about Masahiro Tanaka is not about the time he threw 160 pitches in a game. It is the story of what he did the day after.

It was Nov. 3, 2013, Game 7 of the Japan Series, a David-Goliath clash between the expansion Rakuten Golden Eagles, chasing their first championship, and the storied Yomiuri Giants, on the cusp of their 23rd. A day earlier in Game 6, Tanaka, the Eagles' ace, threw 160 pitches over nine innings. Even by Japan's standards, this was jaw-dropping; a professional pitcher had not thrown 160 pitches in a game since October 2009.

A spitting rain fell on the Miyagi Baseball Stadium, home of the Eagles, as Game 7 entered the ninth with Ratuken up 3-0. The bullpen at the ballpark is hidden from view from the spectators, so almost no one could know that Tanaka was warming up. When the familiar song -- the Funky Monkey Babys' "Ato Hitotsu," Tanaka's entrance music -- began to blare on stadium speakers, there was a sudden and deafening roar that could be heard all the way in Tokyo. "The only thing I could compare it to was when Japan beat Taiwan in the [World Baseball Classic]," says Japan Times writer Jason Coskrey, who was in the press box. "When he came out, it was one of the loudest crowds I've ever heard. The moment was surreal."

It was surreal to see Tanaka on the mound, just a day after his Sisyphean, 160-pitch performance, and yet it was also almost unthinkable that the Eagles' first championship season would end any other way. In baseball-crazed Japan, it was the Year of Ma-Kun, the nickname for the pitcher whose magical 24-0 regular season represented the greatest season ever, and the 2013 Japan Series had become the Miracle Pitcher vs. the Greatest Team in History.

In Game 7, after allowing two base runners in the ninth, Tanaka struck out the final batter on the pitch that made him the most famous pitcher in Japan, his splitter. (Think Koji Uehara's splitter is good? Tanaka's "is better," says Coskrey.) In Japan, it was the greatest sports moment of the year, of many years. One Japanese TV commentator said watching Tanaka's hero moment was "like going back in time," to the kind of baseball they used to see in Japan, when people didn't care about the future.

Of course, the only thing that matters now is the future. The Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes that dominated headlines throughout the past couple months have ended with Tanaka getting the largest contract ever for a player who's never played in the big leagues: a seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees. That kind of money might seem insane, but given the market, the new economics of the game, New York's need for quality starting pitching and Tanaka's talent, it might not be insane at all.

* * *

Let's get this out of the way: Tanaka is not Yu Darvish. He does not pose nude in magazine spreads, he does not have orange-tinted hair, he is not a pitcher with a rock star aura.

The nickname he goes by in Japan -- Ma-Kun -- is the kind of name you'd give a child, or a little brother. He does not possess Darvish's overpowering arsenal; though he can dial it up to 96 mph, his fastball is flat as a pancake and usually tops out in the low 90s.

Is Tanaka as good as Darvish, the Rangers' ace about to enter his third year in the majors? Better? Ask 10 different people who have seen both up close, and you might get 10 different answers.

"Darvish is the better pitcher, right now," says Coskrey. "Darvish is bigger, he's stronger, he's got more of a variety of pitches."

"Is [Tanaka] worth $100 million? I think he is," says one scout. "You look at his track record, it's as impressive as Darvish's coming out of Japan. His stuff, his talent, will translate."

"I think he's a better pitcher than Darvish," says Japanese baseball writer Jim Allen. "He's the best pitcher that's been in Japan, not in terms of stuff -- there were other pitchers who were probably as good -- but in terms of athleticism, physical build, and mental makeup, there's never been such a complete package."

VERDUCCI: How will Tanaka's workload impact his value in MLB?

A longtime writer based in Tokyo, Allen saw all the famous Japanese pitchers before they came to the United States: Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish. Of Tanaka, he says that "there is a lot of misinformation. The more information we put out, it seems the more misinformation appears on the other end." There was a recent story that reported that Tanaka regularly throws out of the bullpen on no rest. "The truth is that he did that once in his career, in the Japan Series," says Allen.

Tanaka has been famous in Japan ever since he was a teenager, when "he was like Stephen Strasburg out of high school," says Coskrey, "because of what he did at Koshein," the famed Japanese tournament, where, as a high school junior, his fastball was clocked at 93 mph.

Allen says that Tanaka is the best Japanese pitcher he's ever seen. "The raw materials on paper are not as good as Darvish," he says. "But Tanaka has a remarkable ability to limit the damage that bad pitches or bad choices are causing him. He has a rare ability to almost slow the game down -- when the plan isn't working, he has a remarkable ability to go to the back-up plan before he gets into trouble. Darvish still goes through several games trying to work through and figure out what's wrong. Tanaka makes adjustments probably better than anyone I've ever seen."

Tanaka didn't have to make many adjustments during his brilliant 2013 season. He was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and was the first unanimous winner of the Pacific League MVP since 1965, in a season where the Japan League's overall ERA rose from 3.03 to 3.57 due in part to rumors about a juiced ball. He averaged 113.3 pitches a game last year -- three times he threw more than 140 pitches. He has won 30 straight games over two years. He has won three straight Gold Gloves. A few years ago, his slider was the best pitch in Japan, but in recent years, his splitter has developed into his greatest weapon. "His splitter is his plus pitch; his curve is okay -- it'll be usable at the big league level," says a scout. "People compare his slider to [Zack] Greinke's, but it's not as good. Darvish throws a little harder, his release point is closer to the plate. He's more of a control pitcher who finds ways to rise above his stuff. He's closer to [Hiroki] Kuroda than Darvish."

There will be questions about Tanaka's workload, though every long-term signing, especially for a pitcher, carries significant risk. And there will be concern over how he'll deal with the bright lights of the big leagues, though the year he just had in Japan was perhaps the most scrutinized season ever, as well as the best. "It was crazy, from August on, there was always something on the line, a new record, something for the team," says Coskrey. "And it was amazing to see him go about his business. He didn't look affected by any of it."

Says Allen, "I wouldn't be surprised if his first season is a serious disappointment because of the adjustments he has to make, but because he'll find a way to fix things, in his second season I think he'll be a monster."

Ma-Kun's amazing story in Japan ended that November night in Kleenex Stadium. Here, the story is about to begin.

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