MLB Player Profile: Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka is the latest pitching sensation from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Masahiro Tanaka is the latest pitching sensation from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Full Name: Masahiro Tanaka

Nickname(s): No really good ones that I could find.* I suppose if Chris Berman (ugh) were a wrestling fan, he’d go with Masahiro “Chono/Saito/Pat” Tanaka. Take your pick; they’re all terrible and I apologize for them.

*Addendum: I did find that Tanaka is sometimes called Ma-Kun (long /a/, short /u/) in Japan, which is basically the first syllable of his given name “Masahiro” and the suffix “Kun” which is an informal attachment to signify camaraderie with others. I dunno, does that count as a legit nickname?

Current Team: New York Yankees

Uniform No.: 19

Current Primary Position: Starting Pitcher

Former Positions: Um…starting pitcher in Japan?

Vital Stats: 6-2, 205 lbs. 25-years-old, born on November 1, 1988 in Itami, Hyogo, Japan

2014 Season Stats (thru May 21, 2014): 6-1, 2.39 ERA, 73 Ks in 62.0 IP

Accolades, Accomplishments, Awards: First-round draft pick of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2006 NPB* high school draft (Komazawa University Tomakomai High School); Pacific League (NPB) Rookie of the Year in 2007; 5-time (5-time, 5-time, 5-time, 5-time) WCW World Heavyweight Champion NPB All-Star Selection; 2-time Eiji Sawamura award winner**; Japan Series champion with Golden Eagles in 2013

*In Japan, there is one “major league,” which is referred to as Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB. The league is split into two leagues: the Central and the Pacific.

** NPB equivalent of the Cy Young Award.

On the Field: Tanaka was born on November, 1, 1988 in the city of Itami, located in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan. He began playing baseball at seven years old, batting cleanup and catching for his Little League team, the Koyanosato Tigers. He began to pitch while attending junior high school, while also catching occasionally.

Once enrolled at Komazawa University Tomakomai High School, Tanaka began pitching exclusively, starring for his team in the National Baseball High School tournament, helping his team to a championship as a junior in 2004. During his years as a high-school pitcher, Tanaka struck out a Japanese-record 458 batters, while also hitting 13 home runs.

In September of 2006, three separate NPB teams drafted Tanaka with their first-round selections. The Rakuten Golden Eagles won a literal “straw-draw” for Tanaka’s services and signed him to a contract.

His NPB “major league” debut came on March 29, 2007, against the host Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. Tanaka allowed six runs in 1 ⅔ innings, but was not tagged with the loss. His first career victory came on April 18 against at home against the Softbank Hawks. He struck 13 in a complete game win.

Tanaka finished up 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and an NPB-best 196 strikeouts. This performance earned him the NPB Rookie of the Year award.

During his seven season with Rakuten, Tanaka compiled a 99-35 record with 53 (!) complete games and 18 (!) shutouts. To put that in context, the active MLB leader in complete games is 14-year veteran CC Sabathia with 37 and the top dog in shutouts in 16-year vet Tim Hudson with 13.

In the fall of 2013, Tanaka was posted by the Golden Eagles, a process in which MLB teams place bids for the rights to negotiate with an NPB player. If the player and the MLB team agree to terms, the NPB team is awarded a “posting fee” and the player begins his career as a Major Leaguer. However, if the player and team fail to agree on a deal, the posting team gets no money, and the player returns to his NPB team.

After all bids were received, it was revealed — in a scene right out of reality TV, with Tanaka playing “The Bachelor” and Bud Selig looking on like any number of doe-eyed lunkheads models — that the New York Yankees won the bid. Less than a month later, the team signed the righty to a seven-year, $155 million dollar contract that initially raised some eyebrows given the volatility of signing Japanese pitchers (see Igawa, Kei or Irabu, Hideki).

Thus far in the 2014 season, as evidenced by the stats posted above, it’s evident that Tanaka is now opening eyes, as opposed to raising brows. In his last 37 decisions, Tanaka posted a 36-1 record, with his most recent defeat coming at the hands (bats?) of the Chicago Cubs (WHAT?!?) on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. His last defeat was in 2012.

Name Anagram: Marathons Kai Aa

Fun Fact: Tanaka is a huge fan of Momoiro Clover Z, which is either a terrible, new vaccine-resistant strain of flu, a card game played by old women in Tokyo, or a very, very popular Japanese all-girl singing group.

Historical Comparables: Given his lack of MLB exposure (as of this writing, Tanaka has only faced one MLB team twice) it is hard to predict what Tanaka will be or who comes close to a comparison. He’s been lights-out so far, drawing early-season comparisons with countryman Yu Darvish, as well as MLB greats like Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez. Will he end up that good? Probably not, given that NPB is largely seen as the equivalent of U.S. Triple-A quality. But, he’s off to a great start, and should prove to be well worth the $155 million, 7-year investment the Yankees made.

Talkin’ About Tanaka: “He has more of a Western style that he’s not afraid to go up and in, he’s not afraid to pitch inside. He pitches kind of with a little chip on his shoulder.” — unnamed MLB talent evaluator.