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Three starts In, Masahiro Tanaka Seems Like An Ace

After just three starts Tanaka already seems primed to be in the “ace” category.

masahiro-tanaka
masahiro-tanaka

USA Today Sports Images

In the week surrounding Masahiro Tanaka‘s lavish press conference on Feb. 11, general manager Brian Cashman was making the rounds.

He wasn’t going around making bold predictions about what Tanaka would do once the season started but he was doing his best to try and convince the baseball establishment that he had modest expectations.

First Cashman appeared on radio shows and then he appeared at the press conference in a gathering with New York baseball writers. He attempted to downplay the expectations for the usual reasons, the differences in cultures and the seven-year, $155 contract’s naturally heavy expectations.

“This is a high-end asset that’s available and it’s obviously got some risk because he’s transitioning from Japan,” Cashman said. “So we’ve spoken about those difficult adjustments that are necessary. He has a great deal of ability and we can be getting more than a three. Maybe it’s a two. Maybe it’s a one at some point but I think because of the adjustments that are necessary, because of the contract.”

If three starts are any indication, let’s say Cashman was showing off a real good poker face.

And before we go any further, we’re aware that Tanaka has not pitched in a Red Sox game, in a September pennant race and the second time around the AL East.

So obviously there still remains tests but facing major league hitters no matter what team they’re on is a stringent test for anyone coming from another country and it appears that Tanaka is on his way to passing.

Even if he didn’t say it, Tanaka could have thrown a no-hitter Wednesday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs. He allowed bunt singles that happened due to modern factors that might not have taken place a few years ago.

We know that the first hit would not have happened last year since it was a replay overturned bunt hit by Junior Lake. The second hit might have happened last year as Anthony Rizzo bunted away from the shift to a spot on the third base side where nobody could get to the ball in time.

That’s it, two soft hits aided by modern factors.

Other than that  Wednesday was just your routine, 10 strikeout and two hit performance in eight innings. It was better than the past two starts against divisional foes Toronto and Baltimore when he allowed early home runs and then dominated.

This time he dominated from the outset, allowing three base runners and retiring 14 straight in between hits while throwing strikes.

Seventy-six of his 107 pitches were for strikes and his 28 strikeouts through three games are the most by a Yankee in his first three career starts since Al Leiter had 25 in 1987.

The differences were that Leiter was a rookie on a team that needed pitching and his first three starts saw him allow 10 earned runs and 21 hits in 19 2/3 innings. Tanaka has pitched 22 innings, allowed five earned runs and 15 hits.

So far Tanaka is fifth in the majors with 11.45 strikeouts per five innings.His average of 87 mph on the splitter leads the majors, right ahead of teammate Hiroki Kuroda so it ‘s hardly stunning that according to Brooks Baseball that the pitch is generating swings and misses nearly 36 percent of the time or that he has thrown 69.5 percent strikes so far (212-of-305).

It certainly didn’t surprise Shawn Kelley or anyone else within the Yankee clubhouse.

“My reaction is that he has that good of stuff that he doesn’t have to throw a lot of balls because he can throw pitches in the zone,” Kelley said. “That’s how good he is. I know it’s early but he’s special.”

 Tanaka went 24-0 last season in Japan. That’s not expected to happen here but he’s certainly not the No. 3 starter that was given modest expectations, at least not now.

“It’s not every day you get a guy coming off a 24-0 season,” Joe Girardi said. “It probably would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to it.”

So far he has and with little difficulty.

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