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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #63 Masahiro Tanaka

The Japanese ace thrilled the Bronx faithful with Tanaka Time for seven seasons.

American League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Full Name: Masahiro Tanaka
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: November 1, 1988 (Itami, Hyōgo, Japan)
Yankee Years: 2014-20
Primary number: 19
Yankee statistics: 78-46, 1,054.1 IP, 991 K, 3.74 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 114 ERA+, 17.4 rWAR, 18.9 fWAR

Biography

There is some symmetry to Masahiro Tanaka making his appearance on the Top 100 at the same time the Yankees are connected to Yoshinobu Yamamoto, another Japanese ace who dominated the NPB. New York signed Tanaka prior to the 2014 season to bolster the starting rotation and he immediately electrified the Bronx. The club and the fanbase can only hope for a similar outcome with Yamamoto this offseason.

By the time Tanaka’s tenure with the Yankees ended, he had thrown more than 1,000 innings and played a key part in the Baby Bomber playoff runs that began in 2017. Incredibly, he did all of it after injuring his throwing arm in the middle of his spectacular rookie season, leaving a proverbial sword of Damocles looming over his right elbow that somehow never fell during his time in the Bronx.

Early Life

Tanaka was born on November 1, 1988, in Itami, Japan. Northwest of Osaka, the city now boasts just under 200,000 residents. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he began playing baseball at a young age. There was at least a touch of serendipity to Masa’s introduction to the sport, however.

Tanaka, in the first grade, was playing with his brother near their elementary school in Itami. Nearby, the baseball team was practicing and Tanaka wandered over to watch. Mitsutaka Yamasaki, the coach, asked Tanaka if he’d like to take some swings. Tanaka, of course, immediately looked like a natural. Yamasaki complimented the young boy to his mother, who decided baseball just might be a great way for Masahiro to make friends. By the time Tanaka reached the sixth grade, he had decided his goal in life was “to become a professional baseball player to become famous.”

High School Baseball

In pursuit of that dream, Tanaka relocated to play high school ball. And this was no short jaunt. Tomakomai, site of his new team, is a 21-hour trip one-way by car from Itami. The team had held a tryout for the 15-year-old Tanaka, who immediately impressed the coach with the quality of his slider and curveball.

By 2005, Masa was the de facto staff ace. He appeared in eight games that season, starting five of them. Over 25.2 innings, he struck out 38 opposing hitters and found himself increasing in celebrity. Tanaka often graced national fan magazines and Tomakomai became a media favorite.

Going Pro

BASEBALL-JPN Photo credit should read JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

Upon becoming eligible for the Nippon Professional Baseball Draft in 2006, Tanaka was selected with the top pick by four different teams, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles won the subsequent lottery for the wildly talented righty. And even though he was a decade younger than the average NPB player, Tanaka quickly proved that he was undaunted by throwing 186.1 innings of 3.82 ERA ball, fanning 196 batters in the second-best baseball league in the world at only 18 years old.

Tanaka didn’t slow down as a sophomore, and in his third professional season, he truly took off after helping Japan win the 2009 World Baseball Classic. From that point on, Tanaka was virtually untouchable in Japan. Never again did his ERA exceed 2.50. In 2011, the 22-year-old averaged 8.1 innings per start, with an astounding 14 complete games in 27 starts while fanning a career-high 241 batters — second only to the soon-to-depart Yu Darvish.

In 2010, Tanaka had revealed that he was dating singer Mai Satoda. The two would stay together and marry in December 2012, and she would travel to the States with him when his Major League Baseball career began. They had a son in 2016 and a daughter three years later.

In 2013, Tanaka saved his best for last. It was a near-foregone conclusion that he would depart NPB for MLB through the posting system at season’s end, and he did not give Rakuten the short shrift by any stretch of the imagination. Almost unbelievably, Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 0.943 WHIP while throwing 212 innings in 28 starts, completing eight along the way.

Tanaka finally took a loss in the playoffs, in Game 6 of the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants. He took his vengeance in Game 7 however, entering the game in relief to close it out and win the championship. Start the hype machine.

Welcome to the Bronx

Major League Baseball had recently changed its rules for Japanese free agents. For Tanaka, it meant that instead of coming to North America in the middle of hot stove season, he did not really get his free agency process underway until January, long after many of baseball’s biggest names had signed deals.

In early January, the New York Times reported that up to a dozen teams were in pursuit of the Japanese ace. Among them, The Seattle Mariners, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Los Angeles Angels were reportedly the most interested… other than the Yankees. A source close to the club told the Times that New York would go all-out to sign Tanaka.

On January 8th, the Yankees met with Tanaka and his agent in California. Allotted one hour to make their pitch, the meeting lasted for three, with Yankee officials pulling out all the stops. They sold him on New York City and they sold him on the Yankees. They showed Tanaka a video of Yankee hero Hideki Matsui and even recruited the former pinstriped slugger to embed a personalized message to Tanaka in the video, one wherein Matsui extolled the benefits of playing for the Yankees.

Two weeks later, the Yankees got the news they had awaited.

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

Tanaka accepted their seven-year, $155 million contract offer. The deal, which included an opt-out after the fourth season, instantly became the largest contract ever tendered to a Japanese player, and at the time was the fifth-largest outlay of money to a pitcher in baseball history.

A Phenomenal Rookie Season Cut Short

Tanaka made his first MLB start in Toronto, in the Yankees’ fourth game of the 2014 season. I’m sure there were some disappointed fans, considering he did not strike out literally every batter he faced. But in his first exposure to big league hitters, he passed with flying colors. Eight strikeouts over seven frames and his first win as a Yankee.

From there, he looked unstoppable. After his first five starts, Tanaka was 3-0 with 46 strikeouts in 35.2 innings, and sported a 2.27 ERA. On June 14th, he faced Toronto for the second time. When that contest ended, he found himself 11-1 (the Cubs hung his first regular season loss in a long time around his neck in May) with a 1.99 ERA.

Tanaka clearly wasn’t doing it as a five-and-fly pitcher, either. He’d already tossed two complete games to that point and had pitched into the eighth inning on three other occasions. He had no-hit stuff at his best, as indicated by the Cubs mustering only two bunt singles against him in eight shutout innings on April 16th. That was the first of five 10-K games in his first 14 starts.

The rookie was selected as a reserve for the American League All-Star Game, though fate had plans that prevented him from participating.

“Yankees’ Future Hinges on a Troubled Elbow,” blared a July 11th New York Times headline. To that point, the 2014 Yankees were 13-5 when Tanaka had started a game for them and 33-40 when anyone else took the ball (indeed, they were an 84-win team that missed the playoffs). And now Masa had a partial tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament.

Deciding not to get Tommy John surgery just yet, Tanaka opted for PRP treatments and rehab, ultimately returning to the club in late September for two starts. He ended the season 14-6 and finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. What could have been…

Time For an Encore

As Opening Day 2015 approached, there was a level of angst that sometimes bordered on dread that hovered around Tanaka, or more specifically, his right elbow. Three doctors had advised him after the injury that the UCL was intact and the tear was small, thus negating the need for surgery. But the decision to avoid Tommy John came alongside the lingering fear of another tear, at which point going under the knife would be inevitable.

Tanaka got the Opening Day nod for the 2015 Yanks. He made four mostly successful starts before injury struck again. This time, it was wrist tendonitis this time, though general manager Brian Cashman admitted to concern that the injury could be a precursor to the dreaded TJS.

Thankfully, Tanaka was able to shake it off and return to the New York rotation in early June. He pitched the rest of the season without issue. He averaged well over six innings per start and finished the campaign with a more-than-respectable 3.51 ERA. New York finished the season 87-75, earning a Wild Card berth and what turned out to be the first of many postseason matchups with the Houston Astros.

Skipper Joe Girardi turned to Tanaka to take the mound for the win-or-go-home Wild Card Game, and he did not pitch poorly. Unfortunately, the slumping Yankees could not score at all off AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and the Astros bullpen. Tanaka took the loss despite only allowing two runs over five innings, as New York fell, 3-0, bringing their 2015 season to an early end.

Big Game Masa

2016 was inarguably the best overall season of Tanaka’s major league career. The Yankees, for the second time since he signed in New York, missed the playoffs. But that was not Tanaka’s fault. His 31 starts were a career-best, as were the 199.1 innings, 14 wins, 5.2 rWAR, and 4.7 fWAR.

2017, however, was a definite step back for Tanaka. For the first time in his professional career, he really struggled. By the time the regular season concluded, he was in the clubhouse with a 95 ERA+, meaning he was literally below average. Considering the playoff-bound Yankees were going to need him in the postseason, it was not exactly an ideal situation.

And then Tanaka shoved, recapturing the clutch form that led the Yankees to fall in love with him in the first place. The pressure was on for his first appearance, as the Yankees needed to win ALDS Game 3 against Cleveland after dropping the first two contests (the latter in excruciating fashion). A loss would mean the end of their inspiring season.

All Tanaka did was throw seven shutout innings in a tense 1-0 victory assisted by Greg Bird.

Four Cleveland batsmen managed to reach base. That’s it. Tanaka was masterful, but he wasn’t even close to done. After New York made it past Cleveland, they found themselves staring down the Astros. Again.

Masa took the ball for Game 1, facing Keuchel in a rematch of the 2015 Wild Card Game. Again, Houston came out on top, through no fault of Tanaka’s. A pair of fourth-inning singles each plated a run, the only ones Tanaka allowed on the night. He departed after six, but once again, New York had no answers for Keuchel. They managed a lone run in the top of the ninth but fell in the series opener.

Five days later, Tanaka and the Yankees took their vengeance on Keuchel. After dropping the first two, New York had stormed back to tie the ALCS and had the chance to go back to Houston one win from returning to the World Series for the first time since 2009. It was Tanaka Time.

Seven scoreless on 103 pitches.

While Tanaka’s outing was capped by consecutive strikeouts of Carlos Beltrán and Marwin González before handing the ball to Tommy Kahnle for the final two frames, Masa’s cathartic roar of emotion after he struck out George Springer and Josh Reddick to escape a fifth inning jam is the memory engraved in my mind.

In retrospect, that series was as close as the Baby Bomber Yankees would get to a World Series title. And Tanaka’s performance against the eventual World Series champions was his finest hour as a Yankee. He finished that memorable postseason with a 0.90 ERA in three starts.

The Final Seasons

Tanaka has the ability to opt out after his 2017 heroics and hit the free agent market again, but he elected to stay in New York and play out his contract. Both the regular season and playoff results were a bit mixed in the final three seasons, though he was largely still effective until the very end. Tanaka bounced back on the mound in 2018, scuffled a bit in 2019 despite his second career All-Star selection, and then again rebounded in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

In 2018 and 2019, Tanaka continued his playoff excellence. Pitching perhaps with a bit of a short leash due to the dominance of the Yankee bullpen, he made four playoff starts in those seasons. In 21 innings, he allowed four earned runs and won three of the four starts, including the Yankees’ only victory in the doomed 2018 ALDS against the powerhouse Red Sox. In what was becoming a (quite enjoyable) pattern, he continued to work over Houston, too. In the opening game of the 2019 ALCS, Tanaka Time showed off again, hurling six frames of one-hit ball against the eventual pennant-winning Astros.

That was Masa’s last gasp of fall heroics, however. The Astros touched him up in Game 4, and he struggled against both Cleveland and Tampa Bay in the 2020 playoffs. After that odd 2020 season concluded, so did Tanaka’s seven-year contract. The Yankees ultimately opted not to re-sign Tanaka and he chose to return to Japan.

Home Again

In January 2021, Tanaka surprised some by departing the majors entirely, returning home to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he began his career. He has pitched the last three seasons there and, though he recently underwent a cleanup surgery on his right elbow, there are no indications the 35-year-old is done pitching just yet.

Masahiro Tanaka is sixth all-time among Yankee hurlers in WHIP. His adjusted ERA+ in pinstripes (114) is identical to that of Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, and David Wells. If you look for his name somewhere between 28th and 35th all-time in many Yankee pitching stats, you’ll find it. Not bad at all. In an alternate parallel universe, his right UCL held up and we’d likely talk about his 2014 debut in the same awed tones we use to discuss Aaron Judge’s 2017.

And, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, he featured one of the most beautiful split-fingered fastballs a baseball fan is ever likely to see.

Staff rank: 63
Community rank: 75
Stats rank: 71
2013 rank: N/A

References

Corcoran, Cliff. “Yankees’ rotation dealt blow with Tanaka’s potentially grim injury.Sports Illustrated. April 28, 2015.

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Gawlowski, Brendan. “Masahiro Tanaka Signs With Rakuten Eagles. Wait, What?,” FanGraphs. January 28, 2021.

Hoch, Bryan. “Farewell, Tanaka: His top Yankees moments,” MLB.com. January 28, 2021.

The New York Times

Previously on the Top 100

64. Allie Reynolds
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