In January, the New York Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a contract more lucrative than that of all but eight other pitchers in the majors. Through just four starts, the Japanese right-hander is already making that deal look like a bargain.
Of the eight people being paid more to throw baseballs than Tanaka, only one, newly-anointed $215 million man Clayton Kershaw, has fewer than seven years of service time in the majors, and even he has a pair of Cy Young awards to speak of. Signing any major league player to a long-term contract requires a certain leap of faith, but to allocate $155 million over seven season to someone without a single pitch of experience in the majors, much less to a pitcher in an age in which it's unusual to see a week without Tommy John surgery, is borderline crazy. Right?
Even so, while the move easily could have backfired on the big-spending Yankees, it's paying dividends already, and the Yankees are sitting pretty atop the AL East.
In retrospect, the move looks especially smart when considering the harsh reality of today's MLB market. For example, Homer Bailey is a $100 million man, and the prospect of Jon Lester receiving $80 million over four years is considered an "insult," despite the Sox left-hander posting a 4.28 ERA between 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, Tanaka has been all the Yankees could have asked of him–and more. Sure, the stats look fantastic–2.15 ERA, 3-0 record and an obscene 17.5 K/BB ratio–but Tanaka's consistency is what really stands out. The Yanks right-hander has gone at least seven innings in each of his four starts, throwing between 97 and 107 pitches each time, and he hasn't surrendered more than three earned runs yet.
That's not all. Tanaka also flourished in his first start at the most important place for a Yankees pitcher to succeed outside of Yankee Stadium: Fenway Park. It's hard to imagine a tougher scenario in the majors than pitching at Fenway in Yankee pinstripes, but Tanaka shut down the Sox on Tuesday, aside from the pair of solo homers he surrendered.
Indeed, the lone red flag has been the home runs allowed. Of the seven earned runs Tanaka has let up this season, six have come by way of the long ball. However, if his Japanese statistics are any indication (which they very well might not be), Tanaka's propensity for allowing homers isn't something that's likely to continue. For instance, in 2012, the right-hander gave up four homers all season, equal to his total through 29.1 innings this season.
Why wouldn't Tanaka's homer total drop? His stuff is downright filthy, particularly his splitter, which has the appearance of a regular fastball before diving out of the zone at the last second. That's led to a lot of grown men who make a living out of hitting baseballs looking like silly Little Leaguers who have no place being in big league uniforms.
Advanced statistics will tell you as much: Tanaka is missing bats at an outrageous rate, generating a ridiculous swing-and-miss percentage of 16.1. Newsday's Jim Baumbach puts that number in perspective:
To comprehend just how good Tanaka's swing-and-miss rate of 16.1 percent (49 out of 305 pitches, according to fangraphs.com) is through three games, consider that Texas' Yu Darvish led the majors last year at 12.6 percent and that the league average this year is 9.4 percent.
Perhaps Tanaka's 35-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is unsustainable, or his 16.1 swing-and-miss rate is impossibly high. Or maybe they're both possible. We've never really seen anything like Tanaka before, and until someone starts to figure out how to hit his nasty splitter, along with the rest of his repertoire, we'll likely see more of the same. He hasn't lost a game in his last 31 decisions, a streak that doesn't appear to be coming to an end anytime soon.