Creating Masahiro Tanaka's Checklist for a Perfect Spring Training
In case you haven't heard, New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is a big deal right now.
When the Yankees agreed to pay $175 million—including a $20 million posting fee—for a pitcher with zero innings of experience in Major League Baseball, Tanaka became an instant rock star. Teams make mistakes in free agency on a yearly basis, but the Yankees had to think very, very highly of Tanaka to pay him like one of the best pitchers in the sport.
As the 25-year-old Japanese sensation traverses through his first spring training in America, a blueprint is needed to ensure success for his first regular season in New York.
The following is a checklist for Masahiro Tanaka's perfect spring training. If all criteria is met by the end of March, Yankees fans should be very excited for their newest star.
We begin with the obvious: For Tanaka to begin to reward the Yankees' major investment, he needs to remain healthy throughout February and March.
The long-term outlook of his contract and career in New York wouldn't be severely impacted by a minor setback this spring, but his progress in 2014 and performance for the upcoming season would.
Over the last three seasons in Japan, Tanaka averaged more than 203 innings pitched per campaign for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. In order for the first-year AL East starter to reach that mark in 2014, a full slate of 30-plus starts is imperative.
For some, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, Tanaka's day-by-day bullpen sessions will be a tracking device of his progress. If Tanaka worries too much about trivial details like that, an injury can occur.
This headlines our checklist because health supersedes everything else with Tanaka. If the newest Yankee feels good in April, results will likely follow.
Comfort with Bigger Baseball
For Masahiro Tanaka, spring training will be an endless pursuit of adjustments. Over the next six weeks, the Japanese-born star will attempt to become accustomed to a new country, language, team and opponents.
As he traverses through bullpen sessions, long toss and Grapefruit League games, we can add another obstacle to his transition period: a slightly bigger baseball.
For the average fan, the idea of different baseball sizes may not seem like much. Yet, for an athlete who pitched 175 games of a professional career with a smaller baseball, a slight uptick in girth or weight could change the trajectory, speed or sink on reliable pitches.
Luckily for Tanaka, one of his newest teammates, Hiroki Kuroda, went through the same period of adjustment when arriving in America for the 2008 season. According to Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Tanaka can lean on Kuroda for advice, per Erik Boland of Newsday.
"I think it's advantageous for Tanaka to have Kuroda here in making those adjustments because you're looking at someone that you probably watched pitch over in the big leagues there and here and you saw him make the adjustment and how he did it," Girardi said. "And I just think there's a natural bond there because of where they're from. It's good for us."
Early in spring, pay close attention to Tanaka's comfort with the baseball. It's that, not early results, that will tell the tale of his progress.
Grapefruit League Progress
Forget the contract. Forget the expectations. Forget everything when Tanaka takes the mound for his series of Grapefruit League starts.
The only thing that should matter is progress.
Of course, with hounds of New York, Japanese and American media following Tanaka's every move, poor Grapefruit League outings will become major talking points around baseball.
For Tanaka and the Yankees, blocking out the noise and focusing on outing-by-outing progress will be key to checking off this point on our checklist.
If Tanaka is lit up for 10 runs in his first outing, don't fret. If command and control are still an issue in mid-March, don't rush to call Tanaka a bust. If velocity is slow to arrive as he builds up arm strength and adjusts to a new baseball, show patience.
Tanaka's progress will be put under a microscope, but the key is taking a big-picture view.
If the most expensive free-agent arm of the winter is better in his last Grapefruit League outing than his first, we can check this off the list.
When Masahiro Tanaka arrived in New York for his introductory press conference, Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo said that it was the biggest media gathering to introduce a new Yankee since Hideki Matsui in 2003, per Sports Illustrated.
Yes, even bigger than the press conference to announce the trade for Alex Rodriguez in 2004.
If Tanaka was surprised by that attention, he was likely flabbergasted by the amount of reporters in Tampa, Fla. who were there solely to watch him throw a bullpen session. According to Jorge Castillo of The Star-Ledger, that was exactly the case during Tanaka's first days at Steinbrenner Field.
“Honestly, when I stepped out on the field today, I was very, very surprised as to how many media there were out there,” Tanaka admitted through his interpreter.
If Tanaka is going to succeed in 2014 and beyond, he must get used to the attention. In fact, the more attention this spring, the better.
Over the next six weeks, an attention overload from the media can only help Tanaka. If it becomes commonplace now, it's one less obstacle and hurdle to overcome during the competitive nature of the regular season.
Soon, Masahiro Tanaka will learn that his words and honesty carry a different degree of weight within the New York media. After admitting to having some difficulty with a one-mile run around the warning track, the jokes and barbs ensued about his conditioning, per George A. King III of the New York Post.
By the time word reached ESPN's Keith Olbermann (video above with MLB.com's Richard Justice), comparisons to Hideki Irabu were in full force.
Headlines and fat jokes sell newspapers, but Tanaka's conditioning this spring has little to do with jogging and endurance. Instead, it's the process of becoming fit for 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings on a yearly basis.
In Japan, pitchers are often asked to throw 160 or 170 pitches in a game. Obviously, the Yankees won't ever push their big-ticket investment that much, regardless of his endurance or shape.
Instead, unlike in Japan, Tanaka will be asked to pitch on four days' rest for most of his career. The Japanese schedule—including one off day per week—is much different than Major League Baseball.
As Tanaka uses the spring to get in shape, don't confuse jogging and wind sprints for the real test of endurance. By April, the Yankees need their co-ace to be ready to pitch every fifth day.
CC Sabathia Profiling as an Ace
When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman spoke about his expectations for Masahiro Tanaka on ESPN Radio, the long-time executive was clearly trying to lower the bar for his new starter in 2014.
"There is definitely some unknown because of the transition, Cashman said. "We scouted him extensively. Certainly, we look forward to adding him into the mix with the rest of our rotation. That's what we look at him as: A solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues."
If Cashman's quote was meant in a literal way, the Yankees spent too much money on a mid-rotation arm. Yet, if his point was to let Tanaka grow into his role as the future ace of the Yankees, it would help if the current ace in New York had a bounce-back year.
From 2009-20012, CC Sabathia was worth every penny of the $86.8 million the Yankees paid him. During that span, the left-handed starter pitched to an OPS+ of 135 over 905 innings. That dominance and durability made him a 21.8 bWAR player.
Last year, that dominance disappeared. Although Sabathia still threw 211 innings atop New York's rotation, his 4.78 ERA (85 ERA+) was below average. In his age-32 season, Sabathia became more of an innings eater than true, top-of-the-rotation ace.
In order for Tanaka to ease into his role—regardless of if that means the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the rotation—the Yankees need Sabathia to re-emerge as the No. 1 pitcher on the staff.
When, or if, that occurs, Tanaka's potential growing pains can be endured.
For Masahiro Tanaka to complete a perfect spring training checklist, CC Sabathia will need to regain his 2009-2012 form.
Agree? Disagree? What is the most important thing for Masahiro Tanaka this spring?
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.