NPB Week: Masahiro Tanaka
The international posting periods have begun! This week we look at 5 names from the NPB who could make an impact in the MLB.
The History of Masahiro Tanaka:
Born on November 1st, 1988 the right-handed pitcher began his professional career at 18 years old in 2007. This was quite young by Japanese standards, but with how Tanaka had just set a Japanese High School record by striking out 458 batters during his career three different teams selected him in the first round of the 2006 NPB High School Draft. (This is a system developed to give more power to the player, which then allows the player to negotiate with each team on contracts/signing bonuses/etc.) Ultimately, he signed an annual contract for 15 million yen with a 100 million yen signing bonus with the Tohoko Rakuten Golden Eagles.
Tanaka was 10 years younger than the average player during that 2007 season, yet he still produced to a 3.82 ERA over 186.1 innings while striking out 196 en route to being named an All-Star and winning the Pacific League Rookie of the Year award. Each year, Tanaka would slowly get better as he played with the Eagles from 2007-2013. During this time he was a 6-time All-Star, 2-time Eiji Sawamura Award winner (the NPB "Cy Young"), and an MVP. Tanaka additionally won 3 golden gloves, was a Japan Series champion, and was twice a Best Nine player while also leading the NPB in wins and ERA twice and strikeouts once. His best season was 2013 as he pitched to a 1.27 ERA over 212.0 innings and had 183 strikeouts. Mind you, he also won all 24 games and lost none over his 28 starts. He was that good.
Masahiro Tanaka, following his best season, was posted by the Eagles (with a $20 million fee) and eventually signed a 7-Year/$155 Million deal with the New York Yankees. While in the USA, he was a 2-time All-Star, placed 5th in the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year, and 7th in the 2016 AL Cy Young. Unfortunately, however, most of this time there was a lot of intrigue and concern around Tanaka after a 2014 right elbow injury. While he avoided getting Tommy John surgery and instead opted for a PRP injection and rest, this did follow him the rest of his time in the USA with worries about if (or when) his arm would "fall off". It never did and he was a solid middle-rotation piece for 7 years with the Yankees.
However, that would be an incomplete story about Tanaka. In the postseason is where he really shined. He pitched 7 shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians in the 2017 ALDS and held the Astros to just 2 runs over 6 innings in Game 1 of the ALCS and had another 7 shutout innings in Game 5 of the ALCS. In 2018, during Game 2 of the ALDS, he allowed just 1 run in 5 innings to the Boston Red Sox. Then in 2019, Tanaka allowed 1 run in 5 innings of work against the Minnesota Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS and pitched 6 shutout innings against the Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS. All of those were fantastic memories and moments. (He did have a terrible 2020 postseason, however, while allowing 11 runs over 8 innings over 2 games to Cleveland and the Tampa Bay Rays.)
Masahiro Tanaka's contract with the Yankees would end after the 2020 season and while he was pursued by the Yankees and other teams in the MLB- now 32 years old- he instead opted to return to Japan to again pitch for the Tohoko Rakuten Golden Eagles. In early 2021, he signed a 2-year contract worth an annual value of 900 million yen: an all-time high for a player in the NPB.
The Stats of Masahiro Tanaka:
Combined over his first 7 years in Japan (2007-2013), Masahiro Tanaka pitched in 176 games (172 starts) to a record of 99-35 (.739 WP%) and a 2.29 ERA over 1319.0 innings. During this time he pitched 53 complete games and had 18 shutouts while pitching to a 1.108 WHIP (1185 hits, 276 walks) and striking out 1244 batters.
Over his 7 years in the MLB (2014-2020), Masahiro Tanaka pitched in 174 games (173 starts) to a record of 78-46 (.629 WP%) and a 3.74 ERA over 1054.1 innings. During this time he pitched 7 complete games and had 4 shutouts while pitching to a 1.130 WHIP (983 hits, 208 walks) and striking out 991 batters. Additionally, he had a 3.91 FIP, a 114 ERA+, +17.5 bWAR, and +18.9 fWAR.
In the postseason (from 2017-2019), Tanaka was dominant with a combined 1.54 ERA over 7 games and 41.0 innings while striking out 34 and keeping hitters to a combined .149/.200/.213 triple-slash. Overall in the postseason, Tanaka's poor 2020 really crushed his numbers as he posted a 3.33 ERA over 10 games and 54.0 innings while striking out 44 as hitters hit to a .194/.255/.327 triple-slash.
Since returning to the NPB (2021-2022), Tanaka has pitched in 48 games to a 13-21 record (.382 WP%) and a 3.16 ERA over 318.2 innings. He pitched 1 complete game (a shutout) and has a 1.098 WHIP (291 hits, 59 walks) with 252 strikeouts.
Should The Yankees Sign Him?
While there were the possibilities of Masahiro Tanaka coming back to pitch in the MLB again after he signed a 2-year deal with the Golden Eagles, it is not going to happen.As part of his contract, he had a player option for the 2023 season and opted in to continue playing in Japan for at least another season. And, I don't blame him for many reasons.
If Masahiro Tanaka was to be a free agent again, I'm not quite sure I would really want to bring him back to the Yankees. There was an obvious statistical difference between how he pitched in Japan and the USA of which looms even larger when you consider he pitched in the USA during what are a players traditional "peak years". And, with an ERA in the low-3's in the NPB over the past 2 years that would signal an ERA to be comfortably above 4.00 if he was to return.
That isn't to consider the logistics for Tanaka himself. He already has the largest contract for any player in the NPB and has already proven to himself and others that he was a solid pitcher in the USA (and a dominant pitcher in Japan). Why travel halfway across the world again and leave his family and friends behind? He did it and he proved he could do it well. At this point, he has nothing left to prove and he is doing what is best for him. That's why he went back to Japan in the first place.
He was a great Yankee and a fan-favorite (and a personal favorite, as all Japanese players are to me), and I also wouldn't even want him to tarnish that legacy by having an unsuccessful come back as he approaches the end of his career. He just recently turned 34 and likely has a few more years in the tank, and I will hope that he can help the Golden Eagles try to return to championship form again.
He was great and I'll forever remember him being a positive note on many failed Yankees teams in the late-2010's. I look forward to the small appearances he'll hopefully make in New York in his post-playing days. He definitely makes my shortlist for favorite Yankees I have had to privilege to see play. Thank you, Masahiro.