A fond farewell to Masahiro Tanaka

It should go without saying, but saying goodbye to Masahiro Tanaka really stinks. I don’t know about you, but his seven years pitching for the Yankees really flew by. There were some ups and downs along the way, but one thing’s for sure: the guy was a fierce competitor on the mound and delivered a number of memorable performances during his tenure. Amazingly, he’s still just 32 years-old and has plenty of good years ahead of him. We certainly wish him the best of luck.

Now that his departure is official, it’s a good time to reflect upon Tanaka’s career with the Yankees. From the initial acquisition to the UCL scare to a handful of postseason highlights, Tanaka was an incredibly fun player to follow over the past seven seasons.

The pursuit

The entire baseball world eagerly awaited Tanaka’s move from NPB to MLB following the 2013 season. He had just capped off a tremendous year for the Rakuten Eagles and ended it with an exclamation point. As if going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA during the regular season wasn’t sufficient, Tanaka closed out Game 7 of the Japan Series on zero days rest to seal the title. Oddly enough, Tanaka actually took the loss in Game 6, but that memory was immediately erased after celebrated on the mound following the last out the next day. It was the perfect leadup to his move to the MLB.

Unsurprisingly, It didn’t take long for reports to surface that the Yankees would be heavily involved in attempting to sign Tanaka. By October 10th, George King reported that the team would be serious players for the right hander’s services. But as the next couple of months moved along, there was quite a bit of uncertainty regarding Tanaka’s availability.

MLB owners wished to renegotiate the posting system that offseason and ultimately won out in talks with NPB. The entire purpose for MLB owners was to save money, of course, as there was an expectation that Tanaka’s posting fee would easily beat the previous record of $51.7 million for Yu Darvish. On the flip side, NPB teams, particularly Tanaka’s club Rakuten, were not happy. Still, they ultimately relented at a maximum $20 million fee.

There were rumors that Rakuten would refuse to post Tanaka as a result of the new agreement. The Eagles’ team president said that he was disappointed in the new system and that no decision was made on Tanaka in early December. It got to the point that there was an expectation that Tanaka would stay in Japan for one more season.

But after another couple of weeks of deliberation, Rakuten finally decided to post Tanaka on Christmas Eve, starting the 30-day bidding window. This came not long after the Yankees had already experienced a rather eventful offseason, mind you. Robinson Canó departed for Seattle while Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltrán signed to play in the Bronx.

It’s worth noting that this was also the time when Hal Steinbrenner seemed adamant about remaining under the luxury tax threshold, which stood at $189 million at the time. To sign Tanaka, Hal would have to back down on that dream (until later years, of course).

The new posting system made it harder for Tanaka to fit into that plan, by the way. Posting fees don’t count toward the luxury tax payroll, but player contracts do. And as a result of the new cap on the fee, Tanaka was destined for a bigger payday himself. Under the old system, Tanaka may have commanded a $60 million posting fee to Rakuten, but the pitcher’s contract probably would have been much lower. Think about Darvish’s deal, for instance: he signed a six year, $60 million contract when he first joined the Rangers, not much more than the fee the Rangers paid.

Embed from Getty Images

Ultimately, the Yankees decided Tanaka was worth paying the tax. The two sides came to an agreement on January 22nd, just a couple of days before the end of the posting window. The Bombers beat out a number of interested teams, including the Angels, Dodgers, and Cubs. The deal: $155 million over seven years, including an opt out after year four.

In retrospect, it didn’t come as a huge surprise that Hal agreed to surpass the tax threshold in this instance. The Yankees spent a ton of time scouting Tanaka and were clearly convinced that he would make a substantial impact. They started paying attention to him all the way back in 2007 and attended more than 15 of his games in 2013. The team also sent a large contingent to meet with Tanaka earlier in January to sell him on joining the Yankees.

Tanaka’s contract was by far the largest of any international player, and still is to date. José Abreu, who also signed that winter, has the second highest at $68 million. Not only was Tanaka’s deal record breaking from an international perspective, but it was also one of the largest pitching deals ever signed at the time. Only Clayton Kershaw ($215 million), Justin Verlander ($180 million), Félix Hernandez ($175 million), and CC Sabathia ($161 million) had landed larger guarantees.

A scintillating rookie season cut short

It didn’t take long for Tanaka to live up to his billing. He notched his first victory in his debut, which came against the Blue Jays in Toronto. The game did get off to a little bit of a rocky start, though. He surrendered a homer to the first batter he faced (Melky Cabrera) and gave up two more runs in the second inning. After that though, Tanaka settled right in. He didn’t allow a run the rest of the way and departed after seven innings of work. It was just the beginning of a remarkably consistent run for the team’s biggest offseason acquisition.

Tanaka allowed no more than three earned runs in any of his first 16 starts through the end of June, and in just one of those games did he allow four total runs. He pitched like an ace and a Cy Young contender. He threw three complete games, averaged more than 7 innings per start (plus no outings shorter than 6 innings), and recorded a 2.10 ERA. That mark was tied for the lowest ERA in the American League with Félix Hernández.

But come July, things took a turn. He gave up 9 runs in 13.2 frames in his next two starts before the gut punch came: Tanaka had a partial tear of his right UCL. You know, the elbow injury that typically results in Tommy John surgery.

Tanaka never went under the knife, however. Instead, doctors recommended the rehabilitation route. Although the initial prognosis was a PRP injection and six weeks of rest, it’s unlikely that anyone would have blamed for the Yankees for shutting him down for the rest of the year, particularly given the club’s lackluster season. Still, the righty did return to make two more starts in September with the team technically still in the playoff hunt. The Yankees were 79-75 and four games out of a Wild Card spot when Tanaka came back. He pitched well on a pitch count in his return: 5.1 innings, 1 run, and 4 strikeouts to get the victory.

Tanaka was knocked around in his final start of the year. It was easily the worst start of his young career: Boston scored seven and chased him before he could finish two innings (three of those scored as inherited runs for Preston Claiborne). Not a good cap to a season, but Tanaka still finished with a terrific line. In 136.1 innings across 20 starts, the righty posted a 2.77 ERA and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting.

Sustained success in spite of his partially-torn UCL

Remember the “shoulda had the surgery” takes? Yeah, that narrative became pretty prevalent following the rehab to his UCL. It really heated up early in 2015 when Tanaka struggled in his first two starts and later missed a month with forearm and wrist soreness. People sure do like to think they’re smarter than doctors, huh? Anyway, Tanaka came back just fine and ended his sophomore season with 154 innings pitched and a 3.51 ERA. No, he wasn’t quite as dominant as he was a year prior, but he was pretty darn effective nonetheless. Masa got the ball in the 2015 Wild Card Game and pitched well (5 innings, 2 runs), but took the loss against Houston as Dallas Keuchel stifled the Yankees’ offense.

As it turns out, Tanaka’s elbow held up just fine for the rest of his career in pinstripes. He did spend some time on the injured list, but not once for anything elbow-related. In 2017, Tanaka spent the minimum ten days on the shelf with shoulder inflammation. In 2018, hamstring strains cost him a month. And of course this year, a very scary concussion sidelined him for a few weeks.

For all of the silly “shoulda had the surgery takes”, I will admit that there was a lingering concern about Tanaka’s elbow for at least a year or two. But by the end of 2016, I think those concerns were quelled. Tanaka finished seventh place in Cy Young voting thanks to a 3.07 ERA in 199.2 innings. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t remember people seriously saying that the rehab route was the wrong decision after 2016. Even when he had a very down 2017 regular season (4.74 ERA).

Although Tanaka had a propensity to surrender the long ball before, it really became an issue in 2017. He gave up 35 dingers in 178.1 innings, or 1.8 per nine. He still missed plenty of bats and had good control, but opponents really punished his mistakes. The juiced ball surely didn’t help. Fortunately, as I’ll touch on a little later, he redeemed himself in the postseason.

Tanaka could have opted out after 2017, but stayed put with three years and $67 million remaining. Even with a strong October, his poor regular season probably cost him an opportunity to sign a bigger contract. The righty came back strong in 2018 and recorded a 3.75 ERA in 27 starts. In 2019, Tanaka was reliable once more even though his 4.45 ERA seems to say otherwise. You may recall Tanaka allowing 18 earned runs in two starts against Boston (one in London, when every pitcher got clobbered). Without those games, his ERA stood at 3.64. Like clockwork, Tanaka pitched well once more this past season. In 10 starts, he boasted a 3.56 ERA.

In the end, Tanaka leaves the Yankees with a 3.74 ERA over seven seasons. Perhaps he was never as good as he was early on in 2014 because of his partial UCL tear, but there’s absolutely no doubt that his tenure in the Bronx was a resounding success.

Postseason heroics

Tanaka proved to be a very good regular season pitcher, but we really saw him at his best under the bright lights in October. Now, I know what you’re about to say. His two postseason outings in 2020 weren’t great. Still, his postseason track record is absolutely nothing to sneeze at.

There are three starts that stand out in particular for me: Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS, Game 5 of the 2017 ALCS, and Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS. There are other good starts sprinkled in between (kinda hard to post a 3.33 ERA in 10 postseason starts otherwise), but those three games especially deserve a shout out.

First, Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS. With the Yankees on the brink of elimination, down 2-0, Tanaka tossed a gem to help keep the season alive.

There were a couple of scary-looking fly balls mixed in, including a near homer off Francisco Lindor’s bat taken away thanks to Aaron Judge’s height, but Tanaka was money regardless. Some good fortune aside, Tanaka kept putting up zeroes as Carlos Carrasco stifled the Bombers offense. Fortunately, Greg Bird came through with a huge solo homer against Andrew Miller to give Tanaka and the bullpen all the run support needed. One more takeaway: I’ll always get pumped seeing Tanaka yell after escaping that fourth inning jam with a couple of huge strikeouts.

Then came Game 5 of the ALCS, fresh off the Yankees winning the previous two affairs to even the series at 2-all. Once again, Tanaka stepped up:

Seven shutout innings? Yes, please. Came after Houston had just saw Tanaka a week before too (6 innings, 2 runs in a Game 1 loss). Anyway, it really felt like the Yankees were on their way to the World Series after Game 5’s win. Hm, I wonder why that didn’t happen. No, I will never get over the banging scheme. Looking back, it makes me feel even more furious that 2017 was Tanaka’s best chance at a ring here. Ugh.

Tanaka did get some revenge against Houston in 2019. He one-hit the Astros in six innings in Game 1 of the 2019 ALCS, which really felt like a tone-setter in that series. The offense broke out for 7 runs and Tanaka was masterful. Unfortunately, we know how that series ended. Tanaka just so happened to take a loss in Game 4 of that series too (4 runs in 5 innings).

Splitter decline

Tanaka’s splitter was billed as his top pitch upon arrival in the Bronx. It paired incredibly well with his (at the time) low-to-mid 90s fastball and garnered a ton of strikeouts. But Tanaka lost some of his ability to harness the pitch over the years. It certainly seems like a big reason the Yankees were ready to move on from him, despite still being effective at 32 years old.

The numbers paint a pretty clear picture of what happened. First, opposing batters really started to make better contact against it over the last two years:

Opponents also didn’t swing through the split as much, either:

A big part of the better contact and fewer whiffs surely was a loss of movement:

The graphs are pretty easy to interpret and tell a relatively clear story, but they still lack some context. I tried breaking some of Tanaka’s struggles with the offering in May of 2019. At that point, it was pretty clear that the righty was struggling to keep the split down in the zone. He had also lost some drop on the pitch.

As months went by, it became evident that the ever-evolving baseball that MLB uses was the root of the issue. As such, Masa adjusted his grip toward the end of 2019. The adjustment appeared to pay off and looked like something that could be a weapon again in 2020. Still, it never really fully came back to anything resembling what it once was.

Below, I’ve cherry-picked a few splitters from 2016 and 2020. Even if it weren’t for the lack of fans in the stands, it’d be pretty easy to identify the vintage splitter vs. current splitter. Just take a look at the difference in movement.

Yeah, it’s just not as sharp as it once was. Unfortunately, it really does feel like the changes to the ball hurt Tanaka. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t feel like a pitch terribly susceptible to other factors such as age-related decline or health.

No split, no big deal

A lot of pitchers who lose their best option tend to sink. Yet, that didn’t happen for Masa. Even with a diminished splitter, Tanaka posted a 93 ERA- and 92 FIP- since 2019. That performance is much in thanks to his slider’s emergence.

When Tanaka first arrived, he went to his slider just under 22 percent of the time. In 2019 and 2020, it’s usage jumped to more than 36 percent, making it his go to offering. Aside from his split’s downturn, it’s no wonder why Tanaka turned to his slider. Just look at these trends:

That’ll do. Tanaka’s knack for pitching really helped him sustain his success in the latter years in pinstripes. We’ve seen so many pitchers take a nosedive after losing their stuff. From CC Sabathia to King Félix to Tim Lincecum, among so many others, pitcher’s arsenals deteriorate over time. For some, it’s a death knell. For others, like Sabathia, it takes a few years to reinvent oneself. But for Tanaka, it didn’t take him very long to adjust. He truly was brilliant at his craft with the Yanks.

Final thoughts

Although I understand the Yankees’ consternation regarding Tanaka’s future without his splitter, I can’t help but feel bad that he won’t be around for the team’s next championship club. In fact, I can’t stop playing the 2017 “what if” game in my head. Had Houston not cheated and the Yankees gone on to win it all, I think it would have been much easier to see Tanaka depart. It’s a similar feeling I’ve had with with Mike Mussina, who came so close a number of times and then left just one year before the Yanks won it all. He went out on his own terms, at least. On the flip side, it was much easier for me to see Hideki Matsui leave the Bombers with that ring in 2009. Oh well. Those are the breaks, I guess.

Moreover, I really hate that we as fans had no chance to give Tanaka an ovation at Yankee Stadium. The pandemic obviously ruined that chance. He really deserved feeling that appreciation one last time from the fanbase. I mean, just read this quote:

“It was a tough season, to say the least,” Tanaka said through a translator on Sept. 23. “It was a short season with the pandemic, and for me, this was the last season of my contract — a seven-year contract with the Yankees. So that was kind of frustrating, to have my last regular season end this way.”

Couldn’t agree more, Masa.

Previous

Masahiro Tanaka signs with the Rakuten Eagles

Next

Reviewing the Yankees’ 2021 Projections: PECOTA

10 Comments

  1. Mungo

    See you in 2022, Masa.

    • Mungo

      I’ll double down on this. At Tanaka’s press conference for his return to the Eagles, he told the media that “I feel I have unfinished business in America, and I haven’t given up on that, so they agreed on terms that would keep those options open.” Add in Boone’s cryptic comment on MLBN the other day about maybe Tanaka’s and Boone’s paths will cross again soon, and it’s not too difficult to figure out what happened here and what’s likely going to happen a year on as long as Tanaka remains healthy.

      Tanaka has two teams, one in Rakuten and one in New York, and he remains loyal to both.

      • I'm Not The Droids You're Looking For

        My speculation runs even deeper than this. I think he can opt out any time he likes. This way if the Yanks specu-rotation flops and they’re ready to spend $ on a SP of Tank’s caliber, he’ll be available to them.

  2. dasit

    tanaka never got enough credit for adjusting his style after the injury. this wasn’t sabathia having 2 years to do the “thrower to pitcher” transition. this was 16 starts of dominance, then boom you need to become a different pitcher. it was so much fun watching him adjust game to game and within games depending on what was working. off the charts intelligence and make-up. top 10 favorite yankee for me

  3. I bet Tanaka is near the top of the list of pitchers that MLB hitters hate to face. So crafty, everything’s down, you never get the pitch you want. I’m glad Masa was on our team and we didn’t have to face him. It would be nice if he comes back on a $5M 1-year contract to get his ring with the Yanks as their #4 or 5 starter.

  4. Dan

    Tanak-ya-out has been a favorite Yankee of mine for quite some time. Can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve defended him over the years from my friends and family who didn’t think he lived up to the hype. Tanaka was such a stellar craftsman and I’m really bummed he’s not coming back next season. I really, really, wanted the Yanks to resign him. He’ll be truly missed this year and it’s such a bummer my man never got to pitch in the World Series.

  5. galihaaben

    Can’t believe it’s already been 7 years… usually these long contracts should feel -long- but he’s put up solid numbers over these 7 years, and most importantly, was durable enough to stay healthy- even with a partially torn UCL, which gave us a fright back then.

  6. MikeD

    Tanaka suffered some reduction in the effectiveness of his pitches after the elbow tear. He then changed his pitch selection and approach and was still successful. He then lost his splitter when MLB put a different ball in play in 2019. He changed his grip, helping somewhat, but then moved to use his slider. He remained effective. Not many pitchers today can do that. They’re throwers. He reinvented himself at least a couple times during his tenure, and I remember reading that he also did that in Japan. That’s how he originally developed the splitter. Maybe the Yankees wiped their brow, happy they got through seven seasons without Tanaka’s elbow blowing out. Or maybe they simply viewed him as a luxury they opted not to afford as they sink under the first luxury tax tier. Their high-upside pitching strategy this season may work, or it may go up in a ball of fire.

    Tanaka has a press conference planned to discuss the move back to Japan. Maybe it even happened already and we’re waiting to hear what he said. I’m not sure how much transparency we’ll get, but I am curious to hear if he received other MLB offers, or he simply rejected them and decided to return home. Most telling will be if he has an optout after the first year. If he does, we may not have seen the last of Tanaka in MLB or even the last of Tanaka on the Yankees, who will be able to spend again next year.

  7. Eric Scheinkopf

    Can’t say it any better.

  8. Man, I wish whoever was cutting onions in here would stop!

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén