It seemed too easy at first. Masahiro Tanaka began his Major League career in 2014 by posting a 12-4 record with an exceptional 2.51 ERA in the first half. He had already tossed three complete games and collected 135 strikeouts. Tanaka seemed like a runaway candidate for Rookie of the Year and was certainly in the CY Young conversation.
Alas, the Japanese ace’s years of overuse in Japan finally caught up to him. In early July, Tanaka experienced elbow discomfort and was immediately rushed to a doctor. One thing led to another, and soon he had spent the majority of the second half on the disabled list, starting in just two games after the break.
Yankee fans were clamoring that the star hurler needed Tommy John surgery, and fast, but the Yankees elected to take it slowly- a decision that has turned out to be the right one.
In the offseason, he refused to opt for surgery on the pained arm, instead opting to rehabilitate it. Just a couple starts into his 2015 campaign, Tanaka was once again put on the shelf with what was described as “minor tendinitis.” Yankees GM Brian Cashman admitted that it “could be” a precursor to Tommy John surgery.
That was the low point in Tanaka’s career. He finished 2015 with 24 pedestrian starts, striking out fewer batters than he had in his rookie season and posting a league-average 3.51 ERA. Tanaka did gain valuable experience that year, pitching in the 2015 AL Wild Card game, when he allowed a pair over five frames in a Yankee loss to the Houston Astros.
During the 2015-16 offseason, Tanaka decided it was time to get surgery- but not Tommy John. As advised by top team officials, Tanaka went under the knife to remove a bone spur from his right (pitching) elbow.
Coming into 2016, he was looking to finally establish his presence as a big league ace with the Yankees. The dip in velocity was evident- Tanaka’s fastball had sat in the high 90s in his rookie year; now it was in the 91-93.
But, Masahiro Tanaka showed why he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball by adapting to his unique circumstance, and making the most of it. 2016 was the best year of the young righty’s career, as he posted a 14-4 record with a 3.07 ERA over 199 stellar frames.
Tanaka learned how to use all of his pitches more effectively. The basic four-seam fastball was used far less, as the former Rakuten Golden Eagle instead opted for heavy reliance on his devastating splitter. He also has an above-average changeup and can hook a breaking ball every once in a while.
In 2014, it seemed to good to be true. It was. Heading into 2017, excellence has become the norm for Masahiro Tanaka, a true ace and top 10 pitcher in the American League.