Tanaka Trouble: Deja Vu?
When the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka after the 2013 season, there were high expectations and great excitement over the type of Major League pitcher he could become. Fresh off of a dominating season for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and led them to the Japanese league championship, Tanaka was primed to make a splash in the big leagues in 2014.
In his first season with the Yankees, Tanaka was the ace that GM Brian Cashman and Yankee fans alike hoped he would be. Despite battling injury problems throughout the season, Tanaka went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA, and was named an American League All-Star. He came back in 2015 and 2016 with two more solid seasons, amassing a record of 26-11 and an ERA in the low threes.
Then 2017 came along:
In over 20 starts this season, Tanaka has been, well...not good. You can see it through his statistics and the way he has been pitching. The former ace has given up 28 home runs in 23 starts, averaging 1.9 home runs allowed every 9 innings. His 4.92 ERA is mediocre at best, and with an 8-10 record he has been the definition of unreliable. So, why all of a sudden can Tanaka not get guys out? Why don't batters flail at his devastating splitter? Why are they all of a sudden sending all of his mistakes into orbit? While there is no definitive explanation, perhaps Tanaka's troubles can be viewed as something the late Yogi Berra would refer to as "deja vu all over again."
In the winter following the 2006 season, the Boston Red Sox acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka, another Japanese pitcher who had been dominant in his home league. Pitching for the Seibu Lions in 2006, his final season, Matsuzaka went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA, and came overseas with a similar amount of hype as did Tanaka. Dishing out millions of dollars to sign Matsuzaka, the Red Sox hoped he could be the ace of their staff for years to come.
While it took Matsuzaka a little longer to adjust to the major leagues than it did Tanaka, he was brilliant in 2008, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, and finished fourth in American League Cy Young Award voting.
Daisuke baffled Major League hitters with his signature gyroball, a pitch that almost no one had ever seen before, and certainly no one could hit. The pitch helped him toss 355 strikeouts over his first two years in the big leagues.
It appeared as though the Red Sox had a real stud on their hands. However, after one spectacular season, Matsuzaka could never put it together again.
He missed half of the 2009 season with an injury, and the time that he did pitch was horrendous. A 4-6 record to go along with a 5.76 ERA had Boston fans scratching their heads. How could a pitcher who was so dominant the year before put up such bad numbers?
The next season, Matsuzaka compiled an ERA of 4.69, which turned out to be the best year he would have for the rest of his career. He quickly faded out of the spotlight and into the depths of the minor leagues. Matsuzaka last appeared in the MLB in 2014 with the New York Mets.
The timeline of Masahiro Tanaka's career has eerie similarities to that of Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Both came overseas as un-hittable phenoms, and and were elite MLB pitchers upon their arrival.
Both hit a point where their stuff just didn't get guys out anymore, whether it was the gyroball of Matsuzaka or the splitter of Tanaka.
Well, for the New York Yankees, they hope that Tanaka doesn't fulfill the Matsuzaka prophecy and never be a serviceable Major League pitcher again.
However, maybe Tanaka is just having a bad year and will bounce back after some off-season adjustments. Or, maybe the league has figured out his stuff, just as they did to Matsuzaka a decade ago. Only time will tell!
But, if Tanaka takes a similar career path and fades away, it will be a shining example of Major League hitters doing what they do best-adjusting.