In March, it's common to introduce an opinion of a player or performance by reminding readers that it's very early, spring training statistics don't count and the real games are about a month away from reality.
With New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, that edict isn't just necessary—it's vital.
In Tampa, Fla., Tanaka's debut was a big deal. In his home country of Japan, a scheduled two-inning outing was a reason to celebrate and watch Grapefruit League baseball in the middle of the night. Clearly, Tanaka's spring training debut didn't profile as your ordinary build-up to the regular season.
After spending $175 million—including a $20 million posting fee—to procure the services of Japan's top pitcher, the Yankees are banking on big things from the 25-year-old righty.
Yet as Ken Davidoff explains in the New York Post, the transformation from Japan to Major League Baseball won't be easy, even for a pitcher that posted a 24-0 record last season. For his part, Tanaka seems to understand the feeling-out process that spring training will be for him this year.
“I understand that there’s going to be a lot of attention on the results, the numbers, on how I do out there,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “For me, now looking at it, I just want to go out there and pitch my style out there and see how it is on the mound.”
In order to make the leap from the 85-win, third-place finish of 2013, the Yankees will need a productive year from Tanaka in the starting rotation.
While a mediocre offense was to blame for what ailed New York last summer, Yankees starters pitched to a 4.08 ERA, per ESPN. That mark placed them in the bottom half of the American League ranks.
How did Tanaka fare during his first game in a Yankees uniform? Here are updates and takeaways from the debut of New York's newest star.
Unlike most Grapefruit League appearances by expensive, well-known starting pitchers, Tanaka wasn't the first Yankees starter to take the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies.
In fact, he was the third member of New York's rotation to toe the rubber, following CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. When the 2014 season begins, he'll likely be placed after those two starters in Yankees manager Joe Girardi's rotation.
During the first four innings of Tanaka's debut game, fans and media members became restless as baseball awaited his first pitch with increased anticipation. MLB Network's broadcast—a simulcast of the YES Network broadcast—focused on Tanaka's eventual appearance throughout the early innings.
When the Japanese star began tossing a baseball in the bullpen in the third inning, a soft roar took over the crowd, and several media members made their way to watch the main attraction stretch his arm out.
If the excitement of Tanaka's first appearance rivals anything to come in his first season, Major League Baseball and the Yankees are poised to roll out a must-see event every fifth day.
Style, Not Results
When the fifth inning arrived, Tanaka toed the rubber in America for the first time in an organized baseball game. Although this was technically a relief outing, allowing Tanaka to start a clean inning—without anyone on base or outs already recorded—afforded him the chance to treat the outing as if it was the first inning of a game.
Following Tanaka's cue, based on the thoughts he shared with Davidoff, let's focus on how he looked before dissecting the actual results against Philadelphia's Grapefruit League lineup.
From a delivery perspective, Tanaka looked the part. Sporting the trademark stutter step featured by so many Japanese pitchers—including teammate Hiroki Kuroda—a fluid, compact delivery accompanied his pitches.
In his first inning, fastballs were up in the zone, including a fastball on the outside part of the place that resulted in an inning-ending strikeout. In Japan, it's likely that fastballs in the mid-90s could generate empty swings, even if above the knees.
As the spring moves along, keep an eye on Tanaka's location. In his first start, he lived higher in the zone than what's needed to succeed in the AL East.
From the moment Tanaka surfaced on baseball's radar, people have raved about his splitter. During the broadcast, YES Network's Michael Kay and Ken Singleton opined about how effective it could be in the majors. Despite the accolades, though, it wasn't on display during the fifth inning.
In the sixth, the splitter clearly emerged. With two strikes on Phillies outfielder Ben Revere, Tanaka launched a nasty, biting and diving splitter low and away. Predictably, Revere swung and missed at the excellent offering.
For many fans, this is all that matters.
After allowing a single to center field to Philles first baseman Darin Ruf, Tanaka settled down during his first inning of work. While the box score may show a fly ball caught to left field, the contact made against him wasn't particularly hard or dangerous.
He recorded a strikeout to end the fifth inning with a fastball up in the zone, touching the outside corner.
In the sixth, Tanaka was even more impressive, generating strikeouts in two distinct ways: a devastating splitter and a chest-high fastball.
The splitter, used to fool Revere, was as good as advertised by the Yankees and scouts.
The fastball, although only hitting 89 mph on the radar gun, was high enough to prey on Domonic Brown's weakness and located well enough to get under his hands. Unlike many high fastballs that are deposited into the seats, this was high enough to either classify as a waste pitch, induce a swing and miss or generate weak contact.
MLB.com's Bryan Hoch got Tanaka's personal take on his Yankees debut and what he experienced and felt out there on the mound:
Tanaka's final stat line against Philadelphia: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 SO, 0 BB
Aesthetically, Tanaka looks and pitches like Hiroki Kuroda. While that comparison may not place him in a stratosphere of baseball's top pitchers, it's a good place to start a career.
Although his velocity wasn't overpowering, watching Tanaka spot his fastball around the plate was impressive. Clearly, this is a pitcher with an idea of how to move the ball around, work the corners and confuse hitters by using all quadrants of the strike zone.
It's early to jump to conclusions, especially for a pitcher who has now thrown just two innings in America, but it's clear that this outing was a success for Tanaka in both style and substance.
Over the next few starts, keep an eye on Tanaka's location and adjustments made against him. For now, the $155 million arm looks to be as advertised: potentially excellent.
What were your impressions of Tanaka's first game in a Yankees uniform?