Unless you have been living under a rock without ESPN or Twitter, you've probably heard of the Yankees' newest addition, 25 year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka's 2013 Japanese Pacific League pitching performance for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles was nothing short of stunning. He completed the season with an unheard of 24-0 record along with an ERA of 1.27 (best among starters). In addition, he finished the season tied with the second-most strikeouts (183) in the league, as well as the best WHIP among starters.
It's evident that Tanaka's stats are among the best of any pitcher in the world. But there is constant concern that he, like many Japanese pitchers before him, will be a big league bust. However, don't make the mistake of judging Tanaka on the failed potential of other Japanese pitchers.
The famous Japanese starters who have been imported in the past two decades are: Kei Igawa, Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu.
Unfortunately, Tanaka is instantly being compared to Igawa and Irabu. Like Tanaka, both Irabu and Igawa were acquired by the Yankees for large sums of cash, roughly $16 million and $46 million respectively (which is nothing in 2014 MLB dollars). Both of these pitchers crashed and burned miserably, and now many are saying that Tanaka will meet the same fate as his Yankee predecessors. These comparisons are without a doubt unjustified.
While Irabu's stats were consistently impressive, they were nowhere near Tanaka's historic numbers. To put things into context, Irabu's ERA over the three seasons before he came to the MLB was 2.68, almost twice than that of Tanaka's 1.44. In addition, Tanaka was able to claim 15 more wins than Irabu was able to in his last three seasons.
Tanaka's numbers are much more enthralling than Igawa's. The legendary Yankee bust had a very mediocre 3.50 ERA in his final three seasons in Japan.
The thing about Tanaka is that there really are no good Japanese pitchers to compare him to. He has a very different pitching strategy than the successful Darvish, Matsuzaka or Nomo, in that unlike these three, Tanaka does not rely heavily on his ability to strike batters out. He has much greater consistency than Nomo ever had in Japan.
All of these pitchers had fairly impressive ERAs before they came over from Japan, but of course, once they began in the MLB, the numbers inflated quite a bit. Matsuzaka for instance, in Japan continuously had an ERA hovering in the twos, but when he arrived in the MLB he saw it spike to high fours and fives in some seasons. This is a function of the Japanese leagues' focus on pitching and speed rather than power. Less balls out of the park, the lower the ERAs.
Tanaka's last several years, and especially his 2013 campaign are way too extraordinary to not have some sort of positive translation to the MLB. As I have pointed out, others will try to diminish Tanaka's astounding accomplishments by putting him in the context of failures of other Japanese pitchers to replicate their success in America. But the truth is, Tanaka's numbers are historic, and even if his ERA doubles in the MLB, he will be a success. He's got the stuff and if he focusses and plays to his own strengths, he'll have tremendous success.
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