New York Yankees pitchers and catchers report to spring training on February 14, and among the new faces will be Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old phenom from Japan who signed a seven-year, $155 million deal in late January.
Ma-kun, as Tanaka is affectionately known (“kun” is an informal Japanese suffix generally used to address young boys or subordinates), is coming off an unbelievable season, going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA. He also had eight complete games, more than any MLB team in 2013. Now it’s time to test his arm against MLB lineups.
Whenever I think of Ma-kun, I think of September 10, 2011. On that day, I was among the sold-out crowd as the Eagles hosted the Nippon Ham Fighters at Kleenex Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, a city hit hard by the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. Almost six months to the day of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Japan in 140 years, we witnessed two gems by two young pitchers, Nippon Ham’s Yuki Saito and Ma-Kun.
This was a dream matchup of two rivals, both 23 at the time, who faced each other in an epic showdown at the National High School Baseball Championship in 2006. The aces battled to a 1-1 tie, and the game was suspended after 15 innings. They both pitched in the rematch the following day, with Saito striking out Tanaka to end the game and win Waseda Jitsugyo’s first title. Ma-kun went straight to the Eagles after high school, while “Yu-chan” joined Nippon Ham in 2011, after attending Waseda University for four years.
In their first professional head-to-head matchup, both Yu-chan and Ma-kun were impressive, each throwing complete games. Tanaka prevailed against his old rival 4-1, and he seemed to grow more confident and dominant as the game progressed. He carried a shutout into the 9th, allowing a run on a two-out, bases-loaded walk, the only blemish in his 12-strikeout performance.
That game in 2011 is a microcosm of Ma-kun’s ability. In seven seasons at Rakuten, he compiled a 99-35 record with 53 complete games, a 2.30 ERA, and 1,238 strikeouts. Going 24-0 in 2013 and winning the Japan Series with the Eagles put an exclamation point on an impressive career.
Ma-kun’s prowess last season wasn’t new to the Yankees, as the young pitcher was on their radar early.
The Yankees declined JapanCulture•NYC’s request for comment, but Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger quoted General Manager and Senior Vice President Brian Cashman as saying, “We started evaluating him back in 2007. So clearly we’ve been scouting over in Japan for quite some time . . . Certainly paid attention to him back in the 2009 WBC, when we were first able to evaluate him with a major-league baseball, against major-league hitters . . . We made a determined effort to put ourselves in the position to know as much as we possibly could, in the event that he was ever posted.”
And Rakuten posted him in December, sending MLB teams vying for the right to negotiate with the superstar, each offering a “release fee” set by the Eagles. After the Yankees and the right-hander agreed to the huge contract, their $20 million release fee officially became Rakuten’s to keep, as dictated by MLB’s updated agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball, which is a bargain for the Yankees.
In 2011 Yu Darvish’s posting fee from the Texas Rangers was a record-high $51.7 million bonanza for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s former team, the Seibu Lions, received $51.11 million from the Boston Red Sox in 2006. The Lions used a large portion of that money to make improvements to the stadium: a new carpet of artificial turf, upgraded bathrooms, a 165-foot-wide scoreboard (the widest in Japan), and a picnic area.
The Eagles pocket much less cash, but that’s not the team’s immediate concern. The defending Japan Series champions must make do without their best player – and with the expected loss of revenue from fewer sales of tickets, concessions, and Tanaka-related merchandise.
“Of course the loss of Ma-kun Tanaka is huge,” says Eagles Senior Advisor Marty Kuehnert via email. “He had a once-in-a-century-type season going 24-0 for us last year. That cannot be easily replaced, but we were most lucky to get the number one draft pick in the country for this season, left-handed pitcher Yuki Matsui.”
Kuehnert reminds us that a team, especially a championship team, doesn’t revolve around only one player, and Ma-kun isn’t the only player who left.
“The loss of Casey McGehee [signed with the Miami Marlins], too, is very big,” says Kuehnert. “McGehee was the first foreign player in our nine-year history to play in all 144 games. However, we have Kevin Youkilis coming in, and if he is healthy again – we have our fingers crossed – he could well make up for the loss of Casey. It is always hard to lose top players, but good organizations continually go after good players and rebuild. We have done that, and I believe we’ll put a very competitive team on the field again in 2014. As far as our fans go, they are naturally disappointed at losing great players like Tanaka and McGehee, but they are excited about our incoming new players. They are also proud to be fans of the reigning champs, and they, like our organization, have eyes set on V2. I expect our attendance will go up this season.”
As confident as Kuehnert is in his new-look Eagles, Cashman expressed concerns about how Tanaka’s talents will translate to MLB. The NPB schedule is shorter, the baseball is different, and starters pitch every seventh day but throw on the side every day.
“That’s something you can’t ignore or deny,” says Cashman. “But despite that, clearly, by the competitive bidding on him as a free agent, with his age, talent and the scouting assessments and the pitching market the way it is, the available pitching – it’s certainly something that we were willing to take the risk.”
“In New York I expect Ma-kun to be a stalwart of the Yankees rotation,” says Kuehnert. “He has a great selection of pitches, including one of the best splitters in the world. He also is a bulldog. His velocity and tenaciousness often goes up as the game goes on, and he has an extra gear when he gets in trouble, a trait of all great pitchers. I believe Yankees fans are going to be very, very happy with their acquisition.”
As Ma-kun and the Yankees head to Florida on Valentine’s Day, it remains to be seen if the fans will fall in love with him.