Masahiro Tanaka

From BR Bullpen


Masahiro Tanaka (田中 将大)

BR page

Biographical Information[edit]

Masahiro Tanaka was named the top pitcher in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2011 and 2013 and was a unanimous MVP pick in the latter year. He has played in both the Olympics and World Baseball Classic.

He played for Komadai Tomakomai High School from 2004-2006. In 2005, he broke Daisuke Matsuzaka's Japanese high school for strikeouts. A year later, he was claimed by four teams in the 2006 NPB draft, with the Rakuten Golden Eagles winning bargaining rights in the lottery that followed. He was considered the top high school prospect in Japan. He signed for a $800,000 (100 million yen) signing bonus with a salary of 15 million yen. Tanaka debuted for Rakuten on March 29, allowing six hits and six runs in a horrid 1 2/3 IP of action. He did strike out three. He said afterward "I felt my own weakness. It was a good lesson for me."

Despite a relatively slow start to his career, Tanaka was leading All-Star balloting early in 2007, thanks to his fame from his success in the Koshien tournament in high school. He wound up making the Pacific League All-Star squad. Tanaka reached 100 strikeouts after 96 2/3 IP, the fastest rookie out of high school to do since Yutaka Enatsu. For the year, he was 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings. He led the league in walks (68) and earned runs allowed (79). He was also among the leaders in innings (4th, between Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada), wins (tied for 7th with Takayuki Kishi), hits allowed (183, 3rd behind Hideaki Wakui and Naoyuki Shimizu), home runs allowed (17, 4th), complete games (4, 7th), strikeouts (2nd, 14 behind leader Yu Darvish), wild pitches (10, 2nd behind Nagisa Arakaki's 25) and runs allowed (83, 2nd, four behind leader Shimizu).

Tanaka tossed 7 shutout innings in the 2008 Olympics, striking out 9 in 3 relief stints. His best outing consisted of 5 innings and just 2 hits against Team USA. Despite his fine work, Japan did not earn a Medal. In the summer of 2008, the youngster was 9-7 with a save and a 3.49 ERA, allowing only nine homers in 172 2/3 IP and making the All-Star team again. He was among the leaders in innings (tied for 6th with Shunsuke Watanabe), hits allowed (171, 4th), complete games (5, tied for 5th with Hisashi Iwakuma and Wakui), shutouts (2, tied for second, one behind Kazuyuki Hoashi), walks (54, 4th), wild pitches (6, tied for 4th), runs allowed (71, 9th), earned runs allowed (67, 7th) and strikeouts (159, tied with Iwakmua for third behind Sugiuchi and Darvish).

In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Tanaka made four relief appearances for Japan. He allowed a solo homer to Bum-ho Lee and two other hits in 2 1/3 IP as Japan won the title. His 3.86 ERA, while hardly lofty, was the highest on a stellar Japanese staff led by fellow PL or former PL hurlers Iwakuma, Darvish, Matsuzaka and Sugiuchi. He followed with his best summer to that point at 15-6, 2.33 with one save. He made his third straight All-Star team. He also became the first pitcher to start the year with four straight complete games since Satoru Komiyama and Shigetoshi Hasegawa back in 1993. For 2009, he ranked among the league leaders in ERA (third behind Darvish and Wakui), innings (189 2/3, 3rd behind Wakui and Sugiuchi), wins (tied for second with Darvish and Sugiuchi, one behind Wakui), shutouts (3, second, one behind Wakui), complete games (6, tied for third with Sugiuchi), hits allowed (170, 5th), strikeouts (171, 3rd behind Sugiuchi and Wakui) and hit batsmen (7, tied for 6th).

The 21-year-old was 11-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 2010, missing over two months of action due to a pectoral tear and a pulled quad muscle. He still finished among the PL leaders in ERA (third behind Darvish and Masaru Takeda), 10th in wins, second in complete games (8, behind Darvish) and WHIP (1.23, 7th between Wada and Wakui).

Tanaka had a great season in 2011, becoming the second Rakuten hurler to win the Sawamura Award (following Iwakuma). He was 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA (the league had changed baseballs prior to 2011 and offensive levels fell), 241 strikeouts, 171 hits and only 27 walks in 226 1/3 IP. He tossed six shutouts and had a 18-strikeout gem. He made his fourth All-Star team. He led the league in wins (tied with D.J. Houlton), ERA (.17 ahead of Darvish), complete games (14) and shutouts (tied with Darvish). He was also among the leaders in innings (second to Darvish), hits allowed (171, 4th), wild pitches (7, tied for 3rd), strikeouts (second to Darvish), WHIP (.087, .004 behind Darvish) and opponent average (.212, third behind Darvish and Sugiuchi). Darvish was the runner-up for the Sawamura. He got 43 first-place votes and 414 total vote points for the 2011 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award, finishing second behind Seiichi Uchikawa (120, 757).

He fell off a bit (10-4, 1.87, 169 K in 173 IP, only 19 BB) in 2012 and was among the PL leaders in ERA (2nd, .16 behind Mitsuo Yoshikawa), strikeouts (1st by 11 over Yoshikawa), shutouts (3, tied for first with Kenji Otonari and Yoshikawa), wins (tied for 9th with Kazuhisa Ishii and Brian Wolfe) and complete games (8, 2 more than Otonari). Yoshikawa was named to the Best Nine while Tadashi Settsu got the Sawamura Award.

In the 2013 World Baseball Classic, he made four appearances for Japan and was okay overall though not dominant (10 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 12 K, 0 BB in 7 IP, no decisions); Kenta Maeda and Otonari were the starters most relied on. In his lone start, he lasted just two innings against the underdog Brazilian national team. He allowed first-inning singles to Paulo Orlando and Leonardo Reginatto with an error by Takashi Toritani in between for an unearned run. In the second, he allowed one-out singles to Tiago Magalhães and Juan Muñiz before Diego França hit into a face-saving double play. Sugiuchi relieved him in the third and Japan rallied to win. Against Cuba, he relieved Otonari in the 4th inning of a loss and promptly allowed a single to José Miguel Fernández and RBI double to Frederich Cepeda; he fanned 6 of the next 7 to avoid further harm and Hirokazu Sawamura relieved him in the 6th. Versus Taiwan in round 2, he relieved Settsu in the 6th with a 1-0 lead and pitched two perfect innings, fanning four more. In the 8th, with a 3-0 lead now, he allowed a single to Cheng-Min Peng, a double to Chih-Sheng Lin and a RBI single to Ssu-Chi Chou before Tetsuya Yamaguchi relieved to put out the threat. His last outing came in a 10-6 win over the Dutch national team. Relieving Sawamura in the 5th, he fanned Xander Bogaerts then retired Dashenko Ricardo and K'd Randolph Oduber; Takeru Imamura replaced him in the 6th. One positive was that he tied Hiram Burgos and Jose de la Torre for third in the event in strikeouts, behind only Maeda and Samuel Deduno.

Tanaka then had a record-setting 2013, with his second 1.27 ERA in three years. He finished 24-0 with 183 strikeouts to 32 walks in 212 IP. He led the PL in wins by 9 over Settsu, Chihiro Kaneko and Takahiro Norimoto), in ERA By .74 over Kaneko, was second to Kaneko with 8 complete games and was second in strikeouts (17 behind Kaneko). He became the 4th NPB hurler to go undefeated while qualifying for the ERA title, following Masaru Kageura (6-0 in 1936), Takao Misonoo (11-0 in 1937) and Shigekuni Mashiba (15-0 in 1981). He had the most wins since Keishi Suzuki in 1978. He set the NPB record for consecutive wins without a loss in a season, breaking Kazuhisa Inao's 56-year-old record of 20, broke Kazumi Saitoh's NPB record of wins in 16 straight games and broke Carl Hubbell's "world record" for consecutive wins over multiple seasons (24) by winning 29 since August 2012. No NPB hurler had ever led in wins without a loss. For his superb effort, he again won the Sawamura Award. He became the first unanimous Best Nine pick in the PL since Tadahito Iguchi and Kenji Johjima 10 years prior. He also was the unanimous winner of the 2013 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award. The 6th pitcher to win in the past 7 years in the PL. He took Rakuten to their first Japan Series. In Game 2, he went the distance with a 12-strikeout, 3-hit win over the Yomiuri Giants to tie the Series, a homer by Takayuki Terauchi the only real damage. With the bases loaded and two outs in the 6th inning of a scoreless game, he fanned former AL All-Star José López to end it. However, Lopez got his revenge in Game 6, hitting a key two-run homer as Tanaka's winning streak ended with a 4-2 loss to Yomiuri. He pitched a complete game that day, needing 160 pitches, but that did not deter his manager from using him to close the win the next day, when Rakuten won its first title with a 3-0 shutout of the Giants in Game 7 on November 3rd. Tanaka pitched a scoreless 9th inning and was credited with the save. At his request, he was called on to relieve Norimoto with the 3-0 lead. He allowed singles to Shuichi Murata and López but fanned pinch-hitter Kenji Yano to end the Series. He

Tanaka drew a lot of interest from MLB teams for 2014, expecting to be posted in the off-season, though this was complicated by negotiations over revisions to the posting system. Those negotiations led to MLB and NPB agreeing to a limit of $20 million for winning bids under the system - considerably less than the $50 million plus that had been bid in the past for pitchers comparable to Tanaka, such as Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Unhappy with the amount offered, Rakuten decided on December 19th not to go along with posting its star hurler, then less than a week later, on December 24th, turned around and announced that they would grant Tanaka's request. He wound up signing with the New York Yankees for seven years and $155 million on January 22, 2014. He made his big league debut as the Yankees' starter against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4th, with dozens of journalists having made the trip from Japan for the occasion. He started with a misstep as he gave up a lead-off homer to Melky Cabrera but then settled down to earn a 7-3 win, pitching 7 solid innings. He gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 6 hits, walked none and struck out 8. On April 16th, he gave up only 2 bunt singles over 8 innings while striking out 10 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs that the Yankees won, 3-0. When Michael Pineda followed him with another strong performance in the nitecap, leading to a 2-0 shutout, it was the first time since 1988 that a team had recorded two whitewashings in one day. On May 14th, he pitched his first complete game shutout, defeating the New York Mets, 4-0, for the Yankees' first win over their crosstown rivals after 6 straight losses. He lost in the majors for the first time on May 20th, when he was beaten by the Chicago Cubs, 6-1, on a drizzly night at Wrigley Field. By then, his streak of unbeaten regular season starts had reached 42 between NPB and MLB. He was named the AL Pitcher of the Month for May, thanks to a 5-1 record and a 1.88 ERA. On June 11th, he threw a complete game and struck out 11 in beating the Seattle Mariners, 4-2, becoming the second major league pitcher to 10 wins that season, after Mark Buehrle. When he won his 11th game, 3-1, over the Blue Jays on June 17th, he took over the major league lead for wins with 11. His second loss of the season came on June 28th, courtesy of two-out solo homer by Mike Napoli of the Boston Red Sox in the 9th, for a 2-1 defeat. He was named to the American League All-Star team in early July, but a couple of days later, on July 9th, went on the disabled list with inflammation in his elbow, forcing him to miss the contest. He had complained of soreness following his worst outing of the year the day before, a 5-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians. The diagnosis was of a partially torn ligament; the Yankees decided to have him rest for six weeks, although the possibility of Tommy John surgery was very much present as well, and questions were asked about why the Yankees had not decided to go straight to surgery, given the poor success record of rehabilitation in similar cases. Masahiro gave signs that he would be ready to return in early September after some throwing sessions in August went very well, but on August 29th, he experienced a setback when he felt "general soreness" after a simulated game, making a return before the end of the year unlikely. However, he beat the odds by coming back on September 21st, when he pitched 5 1/3 innings in a 5-2 win over the Blue Jays. While his return was encouraging, many observers wondered what was the point of getting him back on a major league mound with the Yankees eliminated from postseason contention and just a week left to play in the season.

Tanaka was the Yankees' opening day starting pitcher on April 6, 2015, facing the Blue Jays again, but he was tagged for 5 runs in 4 innings to suffer a 6-1 loss. In the media cauldron that is New York City, this led to immediate questions about whether he had lost crucial velocity on his fastball, or was just deliberately relying more on his off-speed pitches and had simply had a bad day. On April 28th, he was put on the disabled list with what the Yankees described as a "mild strain in his right forearm" and was expected to miss a month. He was 2-1, 3.22 in 4 starts at the time. He returned to the mound on June 3rd, when he was credited with a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners, needing just 78 pitches to go through 7 innings of one-run ball. He pitched his first complete game in over a year in a key situation on August 15th, facing the Blue Jays on the road with the Yankees trying to hold on to half-game lead and the team's two late-game relievers, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, unavailable. He limited the Jays to 5 hits in a 4-1 win. He pitched another great game against the Jays on September 13th, holding them scoreless for 7 innings in a 5-0 win. It was a key game, as the Yanks had lost the first three games of the series while giving up 30 runs, and were in danger of being caught by several teams in the race for a wild card slot. He finished the year at 12-7, 3.51 in 24 starts, logging 154 innings. He then started the Wild Card Game against the Houston Astros on October 6th, but gave up 3 runs in 5 innings and was a 3-0 loser against Dallas Keuchel.

Masahiro made a career-high 31 starts in 2016 and had another solid season, going 14-4, 3.07 with 165 strikeouts while coming just a third of an inning short of the 200 innings mark. He was designated once again as the opening day starter in 2017, but gave up 7 runs in 2 2/3 innings to the Tampa Bay Rays on April 2nd and was saddled with a 7-3 loss. After a no-decision in his second start, he ended the month on a strong note, however, winning his next three starts, including his second career shutout on April 27th, when he defeated the Boston Red Sox, 3-0, on a three-hitter. On May 14th, however, he had the worst outing of his career in the second game of a doubleheader against the Houston Astros. George Springer led off the game with a solo homer, Josh Reddick added another solo shot, and Alex Bregman then hit a grand slam - all in the 1st inning. After Springer hit another long ball to lead off the 2nd, he gave up an RBI double to Carlos Beltran and left after 1 2/3 innings, having allowed 8 runs. He was charged with the 10-7 loss. That was not his only poor performance during the month: in six starts in May, he gave up 48 hits in 31 innings, 11 of them homers, and posted a bloated 8.42 ERA. On June 9th, manager Joe Girardi announced that he was pushing back Tanaka's next start by a day, in order to avoid having him face the Baltimore Orioles for a third time after having already been hit hard by that team the two times he had faced them. He pitched a lot better in the second half and ended the regular season on a positive note on September 29th, when he recorded a career high 15 strikeouts in 7 innings in a 4-0 win over the Blue Jays. That gave him a record of 13-12 for the season, with an ERA of 4.74. He had gone 6-4. 3.77 in the second half after having been 7-8, 5.47 at the All-Star break. He had a great start in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians on October 8th, giving up no runs on 3 hits in 7 innings and getting credit for a 1-0 win. After losing Game 1 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros, 2-1, in spite of another solid start, he was excellent again in Game 5 on October 18th, duplicating his Division Series performance with seven scoreless innings, this time in a 5-0 win.

He started off the 2018 season well, even if his ERA was on the high side. Taking advantage of the Yankees' great bats, he was 6-2, 4.62 at the end of May. On June 8th, however, he left an interleague game against the New York Mets with stiffness in both hamstrings, the result of scoring a run in the 6th inning. He was placed on the DL the next day. He missed a month of action, returning on July 10th and overall went 12-6, 3.75 in 27 starts, pitching 156 innings. He started Game 2 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox on October 6th at Fenway Park and was the only Yankees' pitcher to record a win in the series, as he gave up just 1 run in 5 innings and New York won the game, 6-2.

In the spring of 2019, with talk about extending the use of the designated hitter to both leagues, he went on the record voicing his opposition. He explained that he had grown up with pitchers hitting for themselves and appreciated the opportunity to bat in certain interleague games, in spite of the injury sustained the previous season. The Yankees got off to a great start that year in spite of a rash of injuries, but as one of the only starters not to miss a turn, he was just 3-5 after a loss on June 4th. He then beat the New York Mets in spite of a shaky outing on June 11th, despite allowing 5 runs in 6 2/3 innings, but his next start was a gem, as he shut down the Yankees' main rivals that season, the Tampa Bay Rays on a complete game two-hitter, 3-0. He struck out 10 and walked only 1 in a dominating performance. On June 29th, he had a rough outing when he started for the Yankees against the Red Sox at London Olympic Stadium in the first major league game to be played in Europe; he was chased after just 2 outs in the bottom of the 1st, having allowed 6 runs. His opponent on the mound that day, Rick Porcello, had also failed to make it through the 1st inning, marking the first time since 1989 that both starting pitchers had failed to complete the 1st inning. He again faced Porcello at Fenway Park on July 25th, and this time he allowed 7 runs in the 1st. With a tired bullpen, manager Aaron Boone left him in the game, and that allowed him to give up another 5 runs before being lifted with one out in the 4th. The 12 earned runs he allowed that day were the most ever by a Yankees pitcher against the Red Sox. While New York had managed to win the London game, 17-13, it lost that one badly, 19-3. He finished the season at 11-9, 4.45 in 32 games. In the postseason, he won his Division Series start in Game 2 against the Minnesota Twins, giving up 1 run in 5 innings. In the ALCS, he won Game 1 against the Houston Astros, 7-0, with 6 brilliant innings of one-hit ball, but he allowed 4 runs in 5 innings in Game 4, which the Yankees lost, 8-3.

On July 4, 2020, in his first outing of training camp after the long break caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he was hit on the side of the head by a ball off the bat of teammate Giancarlo Stanton in a simulated game. He fell in a heap to the ground, and while he got up on his own power, he was hospitalized as a precaution. For some reason, the Yankees were not using a protective screen in front of the pitcher. He was diagnosed with a mild concussion but was released from hospital quickly and was able to rejoin the team the next day, although he needed to sit out a few days before taking the mound again. He ended up making 10 starts for the Yankees, going 3-3, 3.56. In the postseason, he started Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Cleveland Indians on September 30th but he was roughed up, allowing 6 runs in 4 innings. The Yankees still won that game, 10-9, to move on to the Division Series, where they faced the Tampa Bay Rays. He made another start in Game 3 on October 7th, and it again went poorly as he allowed 5 runs on 8 hits in 4 innings and this time was charged with a loss, 8-4. It turned out to be his final start as a Yankee as on January 27, 2021, he decided to return to Japan, signing for two years with his former team, the Rakuten Eagles.

With a high three-quarters delivery Tanaka throws a four-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s (tops out at 96 mph), a hard-breaking low to mid-80s slider, a splitter, and a two-seam fastball.

Notable Achievements[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

  • Bryan Hoch: "Farewell, Tanaka: His top Yankees moments",, January 28, 2021. [1]
  • Bob Klapisch: "What's wrong with Tanaka? Here's one theory", USA Today Sports, June 4, 2017. [2]

Related Sites[edit]