New York Yankees Player Profiles: Masahiro Tanaka, will this be his last Yankee season?

William Parlee
New York Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka
Sep 26, 2018; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Masahiro Tanaka, will he remain a Yankee?

The New York Yankees Masahiro Tanaka was born in Itami, Hyogo Japan, on November 1, 1988.  He didn’t waste much time; he started playing baseball in the first grade as a catcher in little league. He played alongside Hayato Sakamoto, who was then the team’s ace pitcher.  They hit next to each other in the lineup. He continued to play until he reached junior high school when he played both catcher and pitcher due to his strong throwing arm. He played for the Takarazuka Boys but was chosen to the Junior All-South Kansai team in his third year of junior high school.

He started solely pitching when he moved to Komazawa University in 2004.  In the US this is like a preparatory high school. While he was there, he led his team to the 87th Championship. With this win, he was given the #1 jersey indicating that he was their ACE pitcher.

Tanaka had developed a good fastball and a hard slider. In the Summer of 2006, his school earned it’s 88th championship and earned a place in the finals. Even though he was ill, he was called in, in the third inning, and he held the opponents to 1 run while he struck out ten. His school was forced into a rematch as it went 15 innings per regulation, but they lost
the rematch. But the pitching in both games was so good both pitchers were chosen to play for Japan in the United States-Japan High School Baseball Tournament. In the Japanese high school draft, Tanaka was selected by many teams. The Golden Eagles won the draft and signed him to a pro contract.

Tanaka pitched well, he got off to an utterly dominant start to the 2009 season, pitching a four-hit complete-game shutout against the Hawks in his first start on April 7. That was followed by a one-run complete game against the Marines. Tanaka had an MVP career with the Eagles and became a national hero. On September 13, 2013, Tanaka set a new NPB record with his 21st consecutive win in the 2013 season in a 6–2 complete-game victory over the Orix Buffaloes.

Baseball scouts took notice, particularly the New York Yankees. To make a
long story short. The Yankees paid the posted $20 million dollar fee to the Japanese league and signed Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year $155 million contract. Tanaka made his Major League debut on April 4, 2014, against the Toronto Blue Jays and gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, ex-New York Yankee Melky Cabrera. Tanaka would receive his first MLB win in the game, pitching seven innings with eight strikeouts in the Yankees 7–3 win against the Blue Jays.

This is the last year of Tanaka’s contract and he has had a winning season in each of those years. His best season was 2016 when he went 14-4 for a .778 winning percentage. Last year he had a bit of a rough time. The New York Yankees were turning to Masahiro Tanaka last season to take
Luis Severino’s ace role. However, Yankee fans were let down as Tanaka was not as dominant last season. He holds an 11-9 record, which doesn’t scream the dominance that he can have. His inflated ERA (4.45) is due to a couple of poor outings where Tanaka didn’t survive past the first or second inning. On July 25, he gave up 7 runs in the first inning in a loss to the Red Sox. A big reason for his struggles is that his split-fingered fastball was nowhere near as effective last season as it has been in the past. The Yankee hopeful love Tanaka and hope he can regain his previous dominance.

Tanaka is in the last year of his seven-year contract and will be a free agent at the end of the season if the New York Yankees don’t give him a contract extension, which doesn’t seem likely.  If you recall at the end of last season, they didn’t take up the options of several players and ended up losing back up catcher Austin Romine, Dellin Betances, and shortstop Didi Gregorius.  With the offseason acquisition of Gerrit Cole for $324MM, it would seem the Yankees will be sticking to their guns and not freely renewing contracts or issuing many extensions anytime soon.

With the coronavirus and a shortened season, Tanaka will have to improve his performance from last season for two reasons.  It will significantly affect his value to the Yankees and other teams should he become a free agent.  The Yankee front office likes Tanaka and will likely make some effort to keep him on the pitching rotation.  He really needs to shine this season.

Tanaka, his wife Mai who he married in Hawaii in December of 2012, and their four-year-old son are presently in Japan, where he feels more comfortable during the coronavirus pandemic.  He has plenty of baseball contacts and venues to stay in form should the New York Yankees baseball season start.

EmpireSportsMedia.com’s Columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.