How Masahiro Tanaka's Debut Compares to Past Hyped International Signings

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 5, 2014

By pitching well after a shaky start, Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka had one of the better debuts by an international star.
By pitching well after a shaky start, Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka had one of the better debuts by an international star.Getty Images

Considering how it began, the first major league start by Masahiro Tanaka went about as well as that of any other big-name international signing in recent memory.

In his much-hyped, eagerly anticipated debut since signing with the New York Yankees this winter for a whopping $155 million, Tanaka pitched his new club to a 7-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night at the Rogers Centre.

The 25-year-old former Nippon Professional Baseball star's introduction to Major League Baseball, though, started off rather inauspiciously right from the very first batter.

Former Yankee Melky Cabrera, the Jays outfielder and leadoff hitter, belted Tanaka's third pitch—an 86 mph changeup that was up and over the plate—for a solo home run in the bottom of the first.

Fortunately, the Yankees offense had scored a pair in the top half of the first inning, so New York still had the lead and a potential crisis was averted—temporarily, at least—when Tanaka struck out Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two of the majors' most dangerous sluggers, to end the first.

In the second, however, things didn't exactly get any easier for Tanaka, as he allowed consecutive one-out singles before a throwing error by first baseman Mark Teixeira loaded the bases. The third single of the frame brought in two runs to put Toronto up 3-2.

With two on and still only one out, the situation was ripe for going from bad to worse. Again, though, the right-hander struck out the next two batters, Cabrera and Colby Rasmus—a pair of lefty swingers, no less—to end the threat.

From there, well, that's when Tanaka more or less hit his stride, retiring 14 of 16 hitters from the third inning on, including four strikeouts and one double-play grounder. Only Encarnacion managed to do anything, lacing a double off the top of the wall in the bottom of the third, and then being awarded a hometown scorer's single in the sixth on a play that should have been made (or called an error).

Over his final four frames—the fourth through the seventh—Tanaka faced the minimum, and at the end of the night, his line looked like so: 7.0 IP, 3 R (2 ER), 6 H, 8:0 K:BB (65 of 97 strikes).

So how does Tanaka's MLB debut stack up against some of the other big-name, big-money international stars to come over from other professional foreign leagues?

Since Tanaka is a starting pitcher, let's focus solely on that for the sake of comparison. Here's a rundown of the first starts by 11 top talents, dating back to Nomo-mania in 1995: 

Hyped First MLB Starts by International Pitchers
Hyun-Jin RyuKoreaDodgers4/2/13266.010 (0)3 (1)5 : 0L
Yu DarvishJapanRangers4/9/12255.28 (0)5 (5)5 : 4W
Hisashi Iwakuma*JapanMariners7/2/12315.03 (1)3 (3)4 : 3ND
Hiroki KurodaJapanDodgers4/4/08337.03 (1)1 (1)4 : 0W
Kei IgawaJapanYankees4/7/07275.08 (2)7 (7)2 : 3ND
Daisuke MatsuzakaJapanRed Sox4/5/07267.06 (1)1 (1)10 : 1W
Jose Contreras*CubaYankees5/30/03317.02 (0)0 (0)6 : 1W
Orlando HernandezCubaYankees6/3/98327.05 (1)1 (1)7 : 2W
Hideki IrabuJapanYankees7/10/97286.25 (0)2 (2)9 : 4W
Livan Hernandez*CubaMarlins6/15/97225.04 (0)3 (3)6 : 3ND
Hideo NomoJapanDodgers5/2/95265.01 (0)0 (0)7 : 4ND
AVERAGE27.96.05.0 (0.6)2.4 (2.2)5.9 : 2.3
Baseball Reference

*Actual debut came in relief earlier in the season.

As the latest international sensation to cross over to MLB, Tanaka followed in the footsteps of his fellow foreigners, most of whom have had dynamite debuts.

If we're rating Tanaka against his countrymen from the list above, a strong case could be made that his was the second-most impressive initial start of all seven, behind only Daisuke Matsuzaka's gem from 2007.

Hiroki Kuroda's 2008 outing and Hideo Nomo's 1995 introduction were both right there with Tanaka's, but the latter's clearly was better than Yu Darvish's, whose first two innings in 2012 started off even shakier than Tanaka's did Friday night. After passing the mantle of NPB's top hurler to Tanaka, Darvish has become one of MLB's best starters, as he led the majors with 277 strikeouts in 2013.

The Yankees have to hope that Masahiro Tanaka's career goes more like Hideo Nomo's...
The Yankees have to hope that Masahiro Tanaka's career goes more like Hideo Nomo's...REED SAXON

And measuring up Tanaka relative to the one-time international studs who also made their debuts with the Yankees, he was about as good as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez's 1998 performance but not quite on par with Jose Contreras' effort in 2003.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that he matched up with "El Duque," either, as former teammate Tino Martinez explained in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report's Joe Giglio:

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.

What does this mean for Tanaka and the Yankees going forward? Well, it's only one start, and while almost all of the pitchers from that table above threw well their first time around, they went on to varying degrees of success thereafter.

The good news, though, is that while Hideki Irabu, Jose Contreras and Daisuke Matsuzaka ultimately proved to be disappointing given the hype that accompanied them to the United States, the only one who completely flamed out and never amounted to even a capable innings-eater was Kei Igawa.

...and less like Kei Igawa's.
...and less like Kei Igawa's.Kathy Willens

Of course, Igawa was brought here by—that's right—the Yankees, who also signed Irabu and Contreras. In fairness, they also unearthed El Duque.

Also? The Yankees aren't paying Tanaka $155 million to be merely an innings-eater. They are expecting, or at least hoping—and certainly needing—him to be a dominant front-of-the-rotation horse who can adapt and adjust to the major leagues.

Again, it's only one start, but in his MLB debut, Tanaka did a little adapting, adjusting and dominating all in one. Ultimately, that's good for both Tanaka and the Yankees. Especially considering how it all started.


To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.


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