Yankees Get a Future Star in Japanese Pitcher, but It Costs Them

Masahiro Tanaka
The New York Yankees finally won something: the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes Adam Pretty/Getty

The New York Yankees finally won something: the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

The Yankees, who have not won a World Series since way back in 2009, outbid at least three other serious suitors --the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox -- for the Japanese pitching phenom. Tanaka, 25, signed for seven years and $155 million. The deal will cost New York an additional $20 million, a posting fee that is due to Tanaka’s former team in Japan, the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The six-foot-one right-hander has never thrown a Major League pitch and yet he is about to become the fifth-highest-paid hurler in history, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw ($215 million) and the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander ($180 million) --both of whom have won a Cy Young Award and inked their deals within the past 12 months-- the Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez ($175 million) and his new teammate, C.C. Sabathia ($161 million). And yet signing Tanaka is the second shrewd move the Yankees made this offseason, the first being a refusal to meet the contract demands of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano.

Why? Let’s examine Tanaka’s resume. While he will technically be a rookie this spring, last year Tanaka had an incredible 24-0 record with the Golden Eagles and a 1.27 E.R.A. He has won 26 straight decisions, which is a record for either the Japanese or American professional leagues (Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants holds the Major League record of 24 straight in 1936-37). A seven-year veteran of Japan’s Pacific League, Tanaka has not had an E.R.A. above 2.50 in the past five seasons; the last time a Yankee starter finished a season with an E.R.A. below 3.00 was 1997, when both David Cone (2.82) and Andy Pettitte (2.88) did so.

And while comparing pitching stats on either side of the Pacific Ocean may be an apples to Mandarin oranges exercise, 24-0 with a 1.27 E.R.A does not get lost in translation. Besides, signing Tanaka and passing on Cano demonstrates that New York may finally not just be spending big but also smart.

According to the USA Today, the Yankees have led the Major Leagues in payroll each of the past 10 years. In that decade, however, New York has never finished higher than 12th in team E.R.A., despite having the most dominant closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, on its staff. No Yankee starter has finished higher than 11th in E.R.A. during this period (Mike Mussina, 3.51 in 2006) . Sabathia, who became the game’s highest-paid pitcher when he signed before the 2009 season, has never finished higher than 17th.

While New York did win the 2009 World Series, they have predominantly been a team built to pile up 90-plus win seasons and wilt in October. Postseason baseball is an arms race and in recent years New York has had no answer for opposing pitchers such as Detroit’s Verlander. While Cano had been by far the team’s premier player the past four seasons --he led the Yankees in every meaningful offensive stat except steals last year-- they never advanced to the World Series.

Tanaka is the latest product of baseball’s Asian invasion of pitching talent. Last season two of the American League’s top five starters were Japanese imports: 32 year-old Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners and 27 year-old Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers. Reliever Koji Uehara, 38, was a vital component of the Boston Red Sox’ World Series season, posting an E.R.A. of 1.09 and a WHIP of 0.57 in 74.1 innings of work. That latter number is only the lowest in Major League history.

And, by the way, the Yankees’ own Hiroki Kuroda, 38, who is also of Japanese descent, has been their de facto staff ace each of the past two years.

Tanaka is younger than all of them, of course, and has accomplished more on the mound by the age of 25 than any of them.

Since watching the rival Red Sox storm Fenway Park’s infield last October to celebrate their third World Series title in the past 10 years, the Yankees have spent $491 million on free agents: $153 million on outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, $100 million on catcher Brian McCann and $45 million on outfielder Carlos Beltran. This week, though, the Steinbrenner sons, Harold and Hal, put down $175 million on someone who is more than just an ace: Masahiro Tanaka should be the cornerstone of this franchise for the next seven years.