The long-awaited debut of Masahiro Tanaka finally took place Saturday afternoon, when the New York Yankees' prized pitcher took the mound for two innings of spring training work against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Pitching in front of a jam-packed crowd at George Steinbrenner Field, Tanaka was under more pressure than a typical first-year player would be. Various televised camera shots of the Japanese media illustrated how much attention this game was getting.
So after all the build-up, did Tanaka give the fans and media everything they wanted?
Of course not. It was two innings in his first spring training game. Tanaka did some good things and some bad things, and there were elements of his repertoire that we didn't see. He gave up just two hits with no walks and three strikeouts in his two frames, though, so it was a clean performance.
The 25-year-old threw 32 pitches before calling it a day. There were some positives and some things to work on. In other words, it was exactly what you would expect from a pitcher making his first appearance.
Tanaka does have a lot of pitches to choose from, as the YES Network broadcast showed that he threw at least seven pitches in Japan last year. There was some confusion on Twitter about what Tanaka was throwing.
@DALLASBRADEN209 It was tough to tell from here. But I only saw 2. & scouts I checked with only saw 2. One pitch we had no clue what it was— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) March 1, 2014
Let's do a deeper breakdown of Tanaka's day to illustrate why not everything was great despite the strong stat line.
Let's start with what Tanaka did well before examining what he needs to work on as the spring moves along.
Tanaka was clearly at his best throwing the fastball. He threw 19 heaters, by my count, most of them four-seamers with a couple of two-seamers mixed in. They ranged from 89-94 mph and showed solid control of the pitch.
The only thing he was throwing for strikes consistently was the fastball. Two of his three strikeouts came on fastballs, a 94 mph one to Cesar Hernandez to end the fifth and an 89 mph two-seamer in the sixth.
If you have had a chance to watch some of Tanaka's videos in Japan, you know that the splitter is his best weapon. He didn't appear to feature it a lot today, trying to establish the fastball and slider with the split and curveball mixed in, but it did come out in glorious fashion once.
After getting ahead 0-2 on Ben Revere with two very good fastballs, Tanaka went to his bread and butter to get the strikeout. It was the best pitch he threw all day, starting at Revere's knees on the outer half and falling off a cliff as it got to the plate.
Masahiro Tanaka threw final bullpen this AM before Saturday’s debut vs #Phillies. Admits he’s curious “how batters will react” to splitter.— Bob Klapisch (@BobKlap) February 26, 2014
It's safe to say that, at least for one hitter, the reaction to the splitter was what Tanaka hoped for.
That's what you wanted to see from Tanaka in his first appearance, so as far as small sample sizes go, it was a good impression.
No pitcher comes out of the gate in spring training fully formed. Even Clayton Kershaw had issues in his first start of 2014, so don't take these criticisms of Tanaka as doubts about his ability.
The biggest flaw Tanaka had against the Phillies was lack of fastball command and no control over his secondary stuff (excluding that one splitter).
My 1 inning's worth of advice to Masahiro Tanaka: Lose the 0-2 fastball over the middle of the plate. Otherwise, carry on.— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) March 1, 2014
In case you are wondering, since Tanaka did earn high marks for his control, command is the ability to put the ball wherever you want. Control is just throwing strikes. The fastball was frequently in the middle of the plate and/or around the hitter's thigh.
What grade would you give Masahiro Tanaka's 2014 debut?
Tanaka wasn't able to fool hitters with the off-speed stuff because they knew he wasn't throwing it for strikes. He got Revere on the splitter because he got ahead with two fastballs, making it easier to get the hitter to chase.
His worst pitch today was the curveball, which was thrown 73-74 mph. Tanaka had no idea where it was going, nor were the hitters willing to offer at it. He only threw three of them and has plenty of other pitches to choose from, so that could just end up being a show-me pitch.
He gave up two soft singles on fastballs in his two innings of work. One was a bad pitch on the outer half of the plate that Darin Ruf took back up the box. The other wasn't a poor pitch, 93 mph on the hands, that Ronny Cedeno punched out to center field.
Even though the media presence could fool you, Tanaka's first start was just about getting his feet wet and showing off small pieces of why the Yankees gave him $155 million.
If you understood that coming into today, you weren't disappointed. Three strikeouts in two innings of work is a very nice start for a pitcher with no previous MLB experience. Tanaka isn't always going to be this efficient.
There will be games when hitters are able to take advantage of him, especially if he's commanding the fastball like he did today and not throwing off-speed pitches for strikes, but the stuff is good with movement, so he can get away with some things others can't.
Stats courtesy of MLB.com
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