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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: Yankees sign Masahiro Tanaka

Tanaka seemingly always came through when the Yankees needed him over his career in the Bronx.

New York Yankees Introduce Masahiro Tanaka Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Even as they stood by as Robinson Canó left for Seattle, the Yankees were quite busy in the 2013-14 offseason. They added a few free agent bats in the form of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltrán. On paper, all of those signings would hopefully add to the Yankees’ offense, after a 2013 season that I will charitably call “anemic.”

However, there was still a pretty gaping hole in the rotation. Ace CC Sabathia had a down year in 2013 after undergoing surgery the previous offseason. Andy Pettitte had retired. Michael Pineda had missed the previous two seasons after the Yankees had acquired him. The only players approaching bright spots in the Yankees’ 2013 rotation still on the team were Hiroki Kuroda and Iván Nova, and the latter only made 20 starts due to injuries.

The Yankees needed someone else in the rotation, and luckily for them, the biggest name on the market was interested in them as well.

Signing Details: Signed Masahiro Tanaka to a 7-year, $155 million contract

Transaction Date: January 22, 2014

NYY stats: 173 games started, 1,054.1 innings, 4.25 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 1.13 WHIP, 8.49 K/9, 18.9 fWAR

While he had almost certainly been on MLB teams’ radars ever since his 2007 NPB debut, 2013 was the season where Tanaka reached the radar of the average fan as well. He had been an excellent pitcher with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for several years, winning Rookie of the Year in 2007, the Sawamura award for the best starting pitcher in both 2011 and ‘13, and was a six-time NPB All-Star.

In 2013, Tanaka put up a ridiculous season, going a perfect 24-0, setting the NPB record for most consecutive wins. Beyond that, he put up a 1.27 ERA and 0.943 WHIP in 212 innings pitched. He led the Golden Eagles to the Japan Series, where he took his only loss of the season in Game 6. However, he returned the very next day and got the save, helping the Golden Eagles win their first ever Japan Series title. He had already been a great pitcher in Japan, but that took him to the stratosphere, and to the top of the MLB free agent pitching market when he was posted that offseason.

Several MLB teams were interested in reportedly interested in Tanaka’s services and were willing to meet the $20 million posting fee. However, from an admittedly Yankees-biased perspective, it always seemed like the Bronx was the most likely destination. That came to pass when on January 22, 2014, he and the Yankees came to an agreement on a seven-year, $155 million contract.

When big-name Japanese imports come to MLB, there’s always a big spotlight on them, and it was no different for Tanaka, especially considering that he was playing in New York. He made his MLB debut on April 4th in Toronto, going seven innings, allowing two earned runs on eight hits, with eight strikeouts as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, 7-3.

His first truly astounding MLB start came in his third game, when he threw eight shutout innings and struck out 10 against the Cubs. Tanaka mostly kept cruising through his debut season, putting up a 2.27 ERA through July 3rd, making an All-Star team and getting himself in award contention. However, he struggled in his next start, and hit the IL after that with what turned out to be a partially torn UCL. Despite some saying that he and the Yankees should just bite the bullet with Tommy John surgery, they opted to rehab the injury. As it turned out, he would never need to go under the knife over the entirety of his Yankees’ career.

Tanaka’s rookie campaign saw him finish fifth in Rookie of the Year. In 2015, he made his first ever MLB Opening Day start, and was given the ball in the Yankees’ Wild Card Game loss, which was due more to the nonexistent offense than his two runs in five innings. In 2016, he had probably his best MLB season, finishing seventh in Cy Young voting after a 4.7 fWAR year.

The 2017 regular season was a bit of a down one compared to his previous years, but once the postseason came around, something of a legend was born.

With the Yankees’ backs against the wall in Game 3 of the ALDS against Cleveland, Tanaka threw seven shutout innings as the Yankees won the game and rallied to win the series. In the next round, he repeated that effort in Game 5, giving the Yankees a 3-2 edge in the ALCS against the Astros. While the Yankees never ended up winning a ring during Tanaka’s tenure, he stepped up in the playoffs in most of the games he was called on. While there were some blips in his final season with the team, over his seven-year deal, he had a 3.33 ERA, 0.981 WHIP in 10 postseason starts, with the Yankees going 6-4. Only one of those four losses can be fully put on him too. In the other three, he allowed just total seven runs, getting just four runs of support combined.

The one major issue over the course of Tanaka’s MLB career was his struggles with home runs, which really came to a forefront in 2017, although as it turned out, the ball over the years probably had a lot to do with those issues. From 2017 on, he was somewhere between average and good. He was firmly in the “good” category in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but the Yankees opted not to re-sign him for 2021.

In fact, it seems like no MLB teams made serious enough of an offer, and Tanaka opted to return to Japan. He mostly picked up where he left off in NPB, making another All-Star appearance for the Golden Eagles in 2021. Being in NPB allowed him to be part of the Japan national team that won gold in the Tokyo Olympics at home.

His contract was for two years, so he’ll be back with the Golden Eagles for 2022, but he’ll be available again after that. If the Yankees wanted to reunite with Tanaka, then that would be alright with this particular fan.