On Friday night in Toronto, Masahiro Tanaka will toe the rubber for his first regular-season outing as a member of the New York Yankees. If the foreign sensation proves worthy of New York's $175 million investment ($155 million contract, plus $20 million release fee), the Yankees could be capable of making some serious noise come October.
Last week, Tino Martinez and Dwight Gooden—former World Series champions well versed in postseason baseball—were at the MLB Fan Cave in New York to promote a new corporate partnership with MLB.
Aside from business, the former New York baseball greats and MLB champions couldn't wait about the arrival of Tanaka. With the Japanese sensation set to make his first major league start on April 4, fans are itching to see what he will bring to the majors.
During individual conversations with Bleacher Report, both Martinez and Gooden talked hype, talent and what it will take for Tanaka to succeed in New York.
In 1997, the Yankees dipped their toes into the waters of Japanese pitching phenoms by signing Hideki Irabu. Although coverage and media was far different 17 years ago, the Irabu hype was real. At the time, it seemed like the rich were getting richer and a legitimate ace was arriving to boost the Yankees to even greater heights.
Of course, that didn't occur. In three seasons with the Yankees, the late Irabu posted a 4.80 ERA and won only 29 games in 74 starts despite pitching behind a team of stars—including Martinez at first base.
According to Martinez, the comparisons between Irabu and Tanaka should start and end with nationality:
Irabu came here with great hype. It was a different time then. Compared to this (Tanaka's arrival), it was nothing. Really, I don't think Irabu was prepared for it the way Tanaka seems to be. There's enormous pressure for him to succeed—much like there was for Irabu—but this pitcher is different.
A former rotation-mate of Irabu in 1997, Gooden had this to say:
Irabu put too much pressure on himself early on. Plus, I hate to say this, the scouting reports were way off. He wasn't the type of talent that the media and scouts billed him as when he arrived. I remember watching him during a bullpen session in 1997. Honestly, I didn't see it. When he struggled during the season, it didn't shock me. ... Ultimately, it's about talent. At the time, Irabu didn't have the type of talent we were led to believe. It looks like Tanaka does have it. That will be the difference.
While the Irabu-Tanaka comparisons are easy to make, it's a former Yankee from Cuba, Orlando Hernandez, who Martinez mentions as a pitcher the newest star could emulate. Martinez talked about the arrival of "El Duque" in the summer of 1998:
El Duque handled it well. When he got off to a good start, the expectation level really rose. He became a sensation and an unknown at the same time. Tanaka's fame will be even greater. He's ready for it. The poise, confidence. I wouldn't be surprised if he matches or exceeds what El Duque did early on for us.
As a former ascending phenom in New York, Gooden can relate to what Tanaka is about to go through on a start-by-start basis. He dealt with it in 1984 and '85 with the crosstown Mets.
He'll be under the microscope, there's no doubt about it. The hype will be there, especially with the media constantly reminding folks about his record last year (24-0 for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and his salary. But that last part is unfair to me. If someone offers you the money, you're going to take it, right?
Despite the impending microscope, hype and comparisons to former pitchers in New York—both successful and unsuccessful—Martinez believes that Tanaka will succeed with the Yankees.
I think he's going to love New York. The idea of 50,000 fans screaming his name and cheering for him will boost him up. Plus, when that splitter is working, he'll be unhittable. Everything stems off of command of all his pitches and getting ahead in the count, but if he's ahead the count to a left-handed hitter, that splitter will be an out pitch.
Gooden is bullish on Tanaka's potential, but pleaded for patience from both player and fans.
This might be an adjustment year. That doesn't mean he can't be really good right away or make the All-Star Game. Two years from now, though, watch out. When he figures out the league and adjusts his body, the sky is the limit. Health is key, of course. But he has everything you need. He just needs to stay focused. Not every interview or appearance is necessary right away. Let him breathe and take it in, New York.
What will Tanaka's ERA be in 2014?
After pitching exceedingly well (21.0 IP, 2.14 ERA, 26/3 SO/BB) in the Grapefruit League, expecting New York baseball fans to have patience with Tanaka is probably a fool's errand early in the 2014 season.
Gooden and Martinez are as qualified as anyone to predict how a phenom will fare in New York, however, and both believe he'll eventually be a star. With Tanaka's highly anticipated debut upon us, baseball's newest sensation will begin a career of major expectations, criticism and fame.
Dwight Gooden and Tino Martinez joined Church & Dwight to announce a multiyear, multicategory sponsorship agreement with Major League Baseball Properties making Arm & Hammer and OxiClean “The Official Laundry Detergent and Stain Remover of MLB.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand. Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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