Way back in 1997 the Yankees were riding high after a thrilling World Series win that snapped an 18-year drought for the franchise. Heading into the season they shored up an already solid pitching staff by signing David Wells as a free agent and seemed poised for a repeat. Naturally, George Steinbrenner needed more and knew exactly where to get it.
In January of that year the San Diego Padres shrewdly purchased the contract of a highly touted, flame-throwing Japanese pitcher named Hideki Irabu. In fact, this move was so shrewd that it combined with the Hideo Nomo signing two years prior and the Alfonso Soriano signing in 1998 to inspire the posting system that we know and love today. The problem for the Padres was that Irabu refused to play for them and made no secret that the only MLB team he would play for was the Yankees. By May, the Yankees worked out a deal that would give them the rights to sign Irabu in return for a package including prized prospect Ruben Rivera and a bag full of cash. Irabu then quickly signed a four-year contract worth $12.8 million. That may not seem like much in today's context, but it was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Just ask Frank Costanza.
When Irabu finally arrived in the Bronx he showed up looking not so much like a baseball player in his prime but more like a 40-something Jonathan Winters. Despite his girth, the scouting reports that painted a picture of a power pitcher with excellent command could not be ignored. If Nomo had removed the stigma surrounding Japanese players in Major League Baseball just a couple years earlier, Irabu was set to take it one step further and prove that not only did they belong, but they could also be among the league's elite.
With the hype machine in full effect and the eyes of the world watching, Irabu's first start did not disappoint. He cruised to an easy win, striking out nine Detroit Tigers in six and a third innings and earning the praise of his catcher and current Yankee manager Joe Girardi. That was where the honeymoon ended though. Irabu was inconsistent at best until he was demoted to the bullpen in September after consecutive starts in which he failed to make it out of the fourth inning. For all of the fanfare that followed him into New York, he just seemed like another dime-a-dozen pitcher who could throw hard but with little effectiveness. Forget elite, he was becoming a classic bust.
The Yankees looked past the rude awakening he got in his rookie year and kept him in the back end of the rotation for the next two seasons. He proved to be serviceable in that role but never lived up to the lofty expectations originally placed on him. During the two dominant playoff runs the Yankees had over that span, Irabu was an afterthought, getting lit up by the Red Sox in his lone appearance. In retrospect, the highlight of his Yankees career took place after a 1999 exhibition game in which he failed to cover first base on a ground ball. A frustrated Steinbrenner then called him a "fat toad" and a legendary nickname was born.
Following the 1999 season, Irabu was shipped to the Montreal Expos for a pair of young pitchers, Jake Westbrook and Ted Lilly, who would go on to have productive careers with teams other than the Yankees. By 2002, he was out of MLB, and by 2004, he was finished with professional baseball altogether. The troubled and enigmatic Irabu would continue to appear in the news now and then for the wrong reasons until July 2011, when he tragically took his own life at just 42 years old, a heartbreaking end to an unfortunate story.
Now we're 17 years removed from Hideki Irabu's signing and some Yankee fans might be worried that they're making a similar mistake in acquiring Masahiro Tanaka. Outside of their nationality, though, they have very little in common. For starters, Tanaka actually looks like an athlete. This shouldn't matter much, but weight was always an issue with Irabu and even these days writers love to cite CC Sabathia's weight as a reason for his performance. Fitness will never be a concern for Tanaka.
The most important way in which these two differ, however, is their skill set. By all measures, Tanaka is simply a better pitcher than Irabu ever was. At 25 years old, Tanaka has already logged more innings in Japan than Irabu had at 28 and with better results. Tanaka has matched Irabu's impressive strikeout rate while walking half as many batters. He has also surrendered home runs at a significantly lower rate and put up an overall ERA more than a full run better than Irabu. Whereas Irabu had immense raw talent that he could not quite harness, Tanaka comes to the Yankees a proven, polished pitcher. He has the quality stuff that every big league pitcher needs, but also the command to make that stuff effective. His insertion into the top of the rotation seems appropriate, not a reach.
The pressure, or lack thereof, on Tanaka from his home country should also not be looked over here. When Irabu headed to the other side of the world, he had the weight of Japan on his shoulders. He was the one that was going to prove that Japanese players should be considered among the best in the world. Every start, every inning, every pitch was a national event that required undivided attention. He's far from the only person that would have cracked under the same unfathomable burden. Since then, dozens and dozens of Japanese pitchers have passed through MLB with most of them performing admirably, even if Yankee fans would like to forget one in particular. The urgency of watching a particular Japanese player in the US has worn off considerably, to the point that Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish can pitch without the eyes of the nation all over them. That's all good news for Tanaka.
Does this mean that Tanaka is a slam dunk and will pitch his way right into Cooperstown? Absolutely not, but under this set of circumstances his chances are as good as any that he'll make it big in The Big Apple.
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