Masahiro Tanaka, the 25-year-old Japanese pitching phenomenon who signed a seven-year, $155 million deal to jump from the Japanese pro league to the New York Yankees before this season, made his much-heralded Major League debut Friday night — and promptly gave up a home run to the first batter he faced.
In his final two seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, Tanaka pitched 385 innings and faced 1,508 batters. But he allowed only 10 home runs during that entire span.
But Friday night facing the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto’s Rogers Centre ballpark, it took Masahiro Tanaka exactly three pitches before surrendering his first Major League home run. Blue Jays left fielder Melky Cabrera did the honors, taking Tanaka deep to welcome the high-priced Japanese import to the big leagues.
Through his first six innings, Masahiro Tanaka allowed three runs — only two of them earned runs — and six hits, while striking out six and walking no one.
Tanaka made three appearances in Spring Training for the Yankees, each one treated as an international event by the Japanese media. Tanaka was one of the most dominant pitchers his home country has ever seen, posting an astonishing 24-0 record in 2013 and a microscopic 1.27 ERA, stats that helped him become the most expensive international signing in Major League history.
Only one Major League starting pitcher has ever posted numbers like that in the “live ball” era which is generally considered to have begun in 1920, when Babe Ruth hid a previously unthinkable 54 home runs in his first year with the Yankees after being sold by the Boston Red Sox. That total far surpassed the record he set the previous year when he hit 29 for Boston.
The pitcher who comes closest to the final Masahiro Tanaka Japanese season was the St. Louis Cardinals Bob Gibson, who in 1968 compiled a 22-9 record with an ERA of 1.12. But though Gibson had a Hall of Fame career and is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, he never recorded an ERA below 2.18 before or after.
Despite the intense focus of media scrutiny leading up to his first start, Mahashiro Tanaka maintained a level head.
“I feel honored that I’m getting this sort of attention,” Tanaka said. “For me, it’s just going up on the mound and trying to get outs.”
Even the Yankee future Hall of Famer and captain Derek Jeter, who is playing his final season in 2014, admired the poise shown by his Japanese teammate.
“It is just like he’s been out there for a while,” said Jeter, after watching Masahiro Tanaka pitch.