Sunday, March 16, 2014
For Masahiro Tanaka, easy does it
By Wallace Matthews
Tanaka dominated a Braves lineup that looked a lot like the one they'll field on Opening Day.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Picture yourself in this position: You start a new job, in a foreign country, surrounded by people who do not speak your language or in many cases, understand the culture you come from. You are being asked to do a job you are familiar with, but with different equipment and under different conditions than you are used to, in full view of thousands of interested strangers. And you are expected to have it all mastered within six weeks.
It is hard to really know what the Yankees expected when they signed the 25-year-old Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract, but it is easy to see how excited they are to have him now.
And "easy" is the operative word here. As in "easy transition," which is exactly what Tanaka appears to be making.
If that is truly the one thing the Yankees worried about in bringing Tanaka over from the Rakuten Golden Eagles, then their worry was for naught. Because it can't really be as easy to go from Tokyo to Tampa, and from the Nippon Baseball League to MLB, as Tanaka has made it look so far. Can it?
"He's just made it transition-less," GM Brian Cashman said today. "It hasn't been an issue for him. It’s almost like it’s more of an issue for us."
And that was before Tanaka went out and threw 4 1/3 innings of one-run, three-hit, six-strikeout ball at an Atlanta Braves lineup that looked an awful lot like the one Fredi Gonzalez is likely to send out on Opening Day. It was only Tanaka's second start of the spring -- he also threw two innings in relief in his first outing -- but as Cashman said, "It feels like he's been a part of this team and this organization for a lot longer than six weeks."
The GM then invoked the name of Hideki Matsui, who also made a seamless transition from Japan to the Bronx and went on to become a World Series MVP.
"I’ve really been surprised how he’s hit the ground running in the states and has made the transition for us so much lesser than we expected," Cashman said. "He’s kind of just fit right in as if he’s always been here, so far."
True, the Yankees have treated Tanaka as if he needs to be packed in bubble wrap, but the truth is, everyone else here is a lot more excited about, and impressed with, Tanaka, than Tanaka is with himself.
He acknowledged noticing the famous names on the Braves' lineup -- Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons and both Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin -- but said that once the game started, they were just strikeouts waiting to happen.
And the strikeouts did happen, a half-dozen of them, and it was tough to decide which was the more impressive, the waist-high splitter that froze Justin Upton to end the first inning, or the back-to-back fastballs Tanaka blew past his brother B.J. in the third.
From the press box, and even on a television replay, it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tanaka's splitter from his slider, or either of those from his two-seamer or his changeup. But what was unmistakable is that this is a pitcher who comes from another place, a guy to whom pitching backward is really pitching forward and whose "secondary stuff" is really his primary weapon.
"I don’t throw fastballs as much as regular pitchers," he said. The word "regular" could easily have been replaced by the word "ordinary."
This is not to say that Tanaka is an extraordinary major league pitcher -- he has a long way to go before anyone can say that -- but that so far, his experience in major league baseball has been pretty close to it.
In their anxiety to protect their investment, the Yankees have coddled Tanaka, isolated his bullpen sessions, and done nearly everything possible to make it difficult for the admittedly large contingent of media to get too close to him.
And yet, in spite of the club's overprotectiveness, and the language barrier between him and the North American media, Tanaka has been remarkably approachable and accommodating, even if not very quotable. He truly seems to be enjoying the experience so far -- he also has a lengthy session with the Japanese media each day -- and outwardly at least, appears unaffected by the amount of attention he is getting. But that goes with having been a star in Japan since his high school days, and it is likely there is very little even New York City can throw at him that he hasn't seen before.
Tanaka, however, seems to have plenty to throw at hitters that they haven't seen before. Brian McCann, who might have been in today's Braves lineup if the Yankees hadn't signed him as a free agent in the offseason, continues to marvel not only at Tanaka's repertoire, but also at his poise.
"It’s beyond surprises me," McCann said. "It just shows you the experience he has to be only 25 years old and to understand how to maneuver through a lineup is really impressive. His stuff plays."
One of the surprising things about Tanaka's stuff is that his splitter is not always down in the zone; he has enough confidence in it to throw it for strikes, even high strikes, because the speed differential between it and his fastball -- from 85 to as high as 94 yesterday -- keeps the hitters off balance.
As McCann has said from the first time he caught Tanaka, "He's not a comfortable at-bat for anybody."
Acting manager Rob Thomson, who finished his brief tenure at 1-2 after today's 7-4 victory, said he was most impressed by how well Tanaka has seamlessly slid into an unfamiliar environment and made it seem like home.
"I know how tough it would be for me to go to another country and do what he’s trying to do," Thomson said. "That tells you something about his makeup and toughness and things like that."
Tanaka, for his part, refuses to pat himself on the back just yet.
"I know that once the season starts I’ll be flying into different cities, pitching under different weather conditions, climates, so I’ll obviously be experiencing a lot of new things and learning a lot as we go through the season," he said. "But so far, so good."
And, to the surprise of everyone but him, so easy.