Seven years is a long time in baseball seasons, and it appears to be the lifespan of Yankee signings from Japan’s NPB league. Like Hideki Matsui before him, Masahiro Tanaka is saying goodbye to New York after being with the team from 2014-2020.
But it’s not Matsui I think of as I contemplate Tanaka’s retirement. When Tanaka made his MLB debut, he pitched alongside another Japanese star, Hiroki Kuroda. And while Kuroda only pitched three years in New York, his full MLB career also happened to last for seven seasons.
Kuroda may be the best Japanese pitcher in MLB history. He debuted at age 33, putting up 22.4 WAR over his career. Had he come to America in his twenties, he could have had a shot at putting up hall of fame numbers.
But his home country always seems to be most important to him. He told the Japan Times years back, “I had this sense in my heart that had I retired without pitching (again) in Japan, something wouldn’t be right.”
Kuroda went on to explain that if he returned to NPB, he didn’t want it to be for a cameo, but instead he wanted to be featured as a valuable contributor.
“Whether it’s Japan, whether it’s America, getting good results is not easy,” he said. “But because I’ve signed this contract and am returning to Japan, I bear some responsibility.”
Kuroda lived up to his promise. He pitched two strong seasons in Japan before retiring at the age of 41.
Will Tanaka get to pitch that long? The contradiction at the heart of Tanaka’s career has been the UCL injury he sustained in 2014. On the one hand, it may have permanently kept him from being the ace he’d been in Japan (and his first weeks in the Majors). On the other hand, Tanaka’s elbow has miraculously held up through every subsequent season, allowing him to remain a successful pitcher.
But while Tanaka has yet to say much about his motives for returning to Japan, one can’t help but wonder if Kuroda had some influence. When Tanaka signed in New York, he benefited from having a teammate who not only had a more general reputation as a mentor, but who could speak to him in his language, and empathize the difference between MLB and NPB expectations (NPB teams tend to have six-man rotations, for instance).
“It’s hard to even describe in words how big of a help he has been to me,” Tanaka said at the time.
Kuroda’s last season in New York was just as good as his other two. His strikeout rate and innings pitched total were around the same. And while his ERA (3.71) was a tad higher, his walk rate actually dropped (for the fourth consecutive season).
Kuroda could have signed with the Yankees for another year (we sure could have used him), but he quit while he was ahead, leaving an impression on his protégé, one could say.
It’s tempting to feel down about Tanaka’s return to NPB. He’s known for being a perfectionist who shows exasperation at even his slightest, on-field mistakes. With the Yankees avoiding him in favor of more experimental pitching signings, one has to wonder if his legendary self-criticism is what drove him out of major league baseball.
But even if that’s true, it doesn’t have to be the full story. Masahiro Tanaka got to live the dream of starring for the most famous baseball team in the world. He did that for seven years and is still only 32 years old. Now he can follow in the footsteps of his one-time mentor, and honor one of baseball’s great countries (his homeland) with the very best he has to offer.