There’s no question, the newest Yankee, Masahiro Tanaka, will have a tough road ahead of him as he prepares for the next chapter of his life. Former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, claims the two years he pitched in Japan, his hips and knees were completely free of pain. That’s because in Japan, the mounds are so much softer. So soft, that another ex-major leaguer, Darrell Rasner, used to worry about slipping and pulling a groin. According to him, the mounds are “basically made out of sand.” In addition to the difference in mounds, Tanaka will also have to get used to a bigger and less-sticky ball, and a strike zone that is less forgiving than Japan’s.
He’ll also be pitching once every five days instead of seven, and will be facing much more powerful lineups than the ones he used to face. There is also the concern about the durability of Tanaka’s arm, after years of going deep into games in Japan. Not to mention he will have to deal with a new culture, and a new language, but also the fact that he is now on the biggest stage in the world, in front of a fan base that can be extremely unforgiving, and the fact that he is expected to do big things for a team known for their history of greatness, but also more recently for their failure with Japanese pitching prospects. You can imagine that’s a lot for anyone to take in, much less a young guy like Tanaka, who just recently turned 25.
Tanaka however, actually did get a head start dealing with the different ball last season when he was 24-0. Rasner recalls seeing Tanaka sitting at his locker holding a major league baseball “touching it, playing with grips, that sort of thing.” Throughout the winter, Tanaka threw bullpen sessions with an MLB ball. Also in Tanaka’s favor, is the fact that there are some veterans on the team whom he can relate to. Fellow ex-Japanese players Ichiro Suzuki, and Hiroki Kuroda, have already made the switch from Japan to America, and it is expected that they can and will help to ease the transition for Tanaka. There has been excitement buzzing all around the team this offseason, with the additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and now, arguably the biggest signing off all, Tanaka.
Yankees’ captain Derek Jeter gave the signing two thumbs up, in a statement he made shortly after it was reported that Tanaka had signed. “It’s huge, man. The game is pitching,” Jeter told the Associated Press. “If you have great pitching, you always have an opportunity to win. From everything I’ve heard, he’s going to be quite an addition to our team.” Among other changes that Tanaka will have to get used to will be the baseball travel schedule. Japan’s travel is all in one time zone, though it can be “cumbersome,” Nitkowski says, because Japanese teams don’t fly charters. “They didn’t fly after night games (like in the majors); they flew the next morning,” Nitkowski says. “So they wouldn’t get in at 3 a.m. somewhere. That’ll be new for him.” All in all, the adjustments Tanaka will have to make will be crucial to his success on the field, and the Yankees will most certainly do everything in their power to make sure that adjustment period is as smooth as possible.
All the pressure surrounding Tanaka was exactly the reason why over the weekend, Yankees GM Brian Cashman tried to temper the expectations on Tanaka, by stating that in his opinion, Tanaka was a “solid number three starter.” The fact that Cashman and the Yankees would shell out $155 million to a “solid number three starter,” is beyond believable, even for the Yankees who have been known to overpay in their day. While there are many questions surrounding Tanaka, one thing is for sure…he certainly knows how to travel in style! Over the weekend, the right-hander chartered a plane from Japan to make sure he arrived to this week’s events. It wasn’t any old plane however. It was a Japan Airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners, on which he dropped nearly $200,000 worth of American money, to ensure that the flight would be a private one. 787s usually seat around 300 people, so you could say the plane was far from full, seeing as the only one’s on board were Tanaka, his wife, her dog, and three other people. Tanaka is scheduled to make his big New York debut in a press conference today at Yankee Stadium as this piece hits the net. With spring training just around the corner, this will be the very first step in what Tanaka, and the Yankees, both hope will be a very successful next seven years…