For the New York Yankees, the time has come to find out what they'll be getting for their $175 million investment in Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, who is set to make the first-ever start of his Major League Baseball career on Friday night on the road against the Toronto Blue Jays.
For Tanaka, the time has come to start proving he's worth it. Worth the $155 million contract plus the $20 million release fee the Yankees paid to secure his services. Worth all the hype that made him the most sought-after free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. And worth the hope that he can perform like the top-of-the-rotation arm the club so desperately needs him to be after missing the playoffs for just the second time in the past 19 seasons.
Certainly, not all of that can be determined from a single outing, even one as highly anticipated and with as much domestic and international fanfare as this. But in New York, well, things can get judged—and out of hand—in a hurry. So let's not pretend that Tanaka's first start that actually counts isn't at least somewhat important, if only as a first impression to an ever-eager baseball-watching world.
By now, no doubt, you're well aware of Tanaka's domination of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball in recent seasons—his 2013 numbers in particular (24-0, 1.27 ERA), which he posted while leading the Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first Japan Series title.
MLB, of course, is a different animal altogether. This is a league which features the best competition in the world. So what might we expect from Tanaka?
While spring training is far from a fair and accurate gauge, it's the primary and most recent performance sample that exists when it comes to Tanaka so far. To that end, the 25-year-old showed that his stuff—low- to mid-90s fastball, drop-off-the-table splitter and, at times, above-average slider—can get the job done against big league hitters.
Over his 21.0 innings across five games (three starts) this spring, the right-hander allowed just five runs on 15 hits (one homer) and sported a promising 26/3 K/BB.
"I feel that I was able to get a feel for everything, for how everything is run here in the majors," Tanaka told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News about his first exposure to MLB batters this spring. "I think the important thing for me is not to stop here and keep learning as the season progresses."
Even in what qualified as his worst outing against the Minnesota Twins (5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R), Tanaka was still mostly impressive, as you can see for yourself:
Following that penultimate start on March 22, Tanaka capped off his first stateside exhibition season six days later with six scoreless frames in which he allowed all of three hits and whiffed 10 against the Miami Marlins.
The times Tanaka found himself in trouble in March primarily came when his command wasn't as sharp and he fell behind in counts, as fellow B/R writer Adam Wells pointed out last month. The same goes for just about every pitcher—even the best ones on the planet.
Speaking of finding himself in trouble, Tanaka will have to contend with the Rogers Centre, one of the more hitter-friendly stadiums in the sport in recent seasons, in his start on Friday. Over the past three seasons, the Jays' home park has ranked fourth (2013), 15th (2012) and fourth (2011) in the runs-scored element of park factor, according to ESPN.
That's something Tanaka should get used to, as four of the five parks in the ultra-competitive American League East favor batters over pitchers, with the Tampa Bay Rays' Tropicana Field being the lone exception.
Another big aspect to Tanaka's first start will be how he matches up against the Blue Jays hitters. With Jose Reyes out with a hamstring injury, the lineup's other biggest threats, Jose Bautista (fresh off a two-homer game), Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie, all hit from the right side. That should give the right-handed Tanaka somewhat of an edge, as long as he can hold lefties Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind in check.
By pitching him in the fourth game of the season—after CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova—the Yankees are opting for the conservative path for Tanaka. That's smart considering all they've invested in him and all the adjustments he needs to be ready for, both on the field (i.e., pitching every five days, different size ball, deeper lineups) and off (i.e., new language, different culture, excessive media).
Kuroda, the veteran Japanese hurler in his third year with the Yankees and seventh in the majors overall, has been especially helpful in Tanaka's assimilation process in the early going, as pitching coach Larry Rothschild explained to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News:
[Tanaka has been] talking to [Kuroda] about how he did things when he got here, how he changed and evolved to fit pitching every fifth day, that's a huge help. To hear it from someone who has been through it, it's different than someone telling you, "Here’s what we need to do." He's been there and done it.
On Friday, though, the time for adjustments and transition will be put aside, as Tanaka will stand on the mound with all of the hype and hope that comes along with an international sensation and big-money investment making his first start in the majors.
For both the Yankees and Tanaka, the time has come.
Tanaka's Predicted Line: 5.2 IP, 2 ER, 5 H (1 HR), 6/2 K/BB (97 pitches)
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