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Masahiro Tanaka

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Masahiro Tanaka (田中 将大)
(Ma-Kun)

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Masahiro Tanaka was named the top pitcher in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2011 and 2013 and was a unanimous MVP pick in the latter year. He has played in both the Olympics and World Baseball Classic.

He played for Komadai Tomakomai from 2004-2006. In 2005, he broke Daisuke Matsuzaka's Japanese high school for strikeouts. A year later, he was claimed by four teams in the NPB draft, with the Rakuten Golden Eagles winning bargaining rights in the lottery that followed. He was considered the top high school prospect in Japan. He signed for a $800,000 (100 million yen) signing bonus with a salary of 15 million yen. Tanaka debuted for Rakuten on March 29, allowing six hits and six runs in a horrid 1 2/3 IP of action. He did strike out three. He said afterward "I felt my own weakness. It was a good lesson for me."

Despite a relatively slow start to his career, Tanaka was leading All-Star balloting early in 2007, thanks to his fame from his success in the Koshien tournament in high school. He wound up making the Pacific League All-Star squad. Tanaka reached 100 strikeouts after 96 2/3 IP, the fastest rookie out of high school to do since Yutaka Enatsu. For the year, he was 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 186 1/3 innings. He led the league in walks (68) and earned runs allowed (79). He was also among the leaders in innings (4th, between Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada), wins (tied for 7th with Takayuki Kishi), hits allowed (183, 3rd behind Hideaki Wakui and Naoyuki Shimizu), home runs allowed (17, 4th), complete games (4, 7th), strikeouts (2nd, 14 behind leader Yu Darvish), wild pitches (10, 2nd behind Nagisa Arakaki's 25) and runs allowed (83, 2nd, four behind leader Shimizu).

Tanaka tossed 7 shutout innings in the 2008 Olympics, striking out 9 in 3 relief stints. His best outing consisted of 5 innings and just 2 hits against Team USA. Despite his fine work, Japan did not earn a Medal. In the summer of 2008, the youngster was 9-7 with a save and a 3.49 ERA, allowing only nine homers in 172 2/3 IP and making the All-Star team again. He was among the leaders in innings (tied for 6th with Shunsuke Watanabe), hits allowed (171, 4th), complete games (5, tied for 5th with Hisashi Iwakuma and Wakui), shutouts (2, tied for second, one behind Kazuyuki Hoashi), walks (54, 4th), wild pitches (6, tied for 4th), runs allowed (71, 9th), earned runs allowed (67, 7th) and strikeouts (159, tied with Iwakmua for third behind Sugiuchi and Darvish).

In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Tanaka made four relief appearances for Japan. He allowed a solo homer to Bum-ho Lee and two other hits in 2 1/3 IP as Japan won the title. His 3.86 ERA, while hardly lofty, was the highest on a stellar Japanese staff led by fellow PL or former PL hurlers Iwakuma, Darvish, Matsuzaka and Sugiuchi. He followed with his best summer to that point at 15-6, 2.33 with one save. He made his third straight All-Star team. He also became the first pitcher to start the year with four straight complete games since Satoru Komiyama and Shigetoshi Hasegawa back in 1993. For 2009, he ranked among the league leaders in ERA (third behind Darvish and Wakui), innings (189 2/3, 3rd behind Wakui and Sugiuchi), wins (tied for second with Darvish and Sugiuchi, one behind Wakui), shutouts (3, second, one behind Wakui), complete games (6, tied for third with Sugiuchi), hits allowed (170, 5th), strikeouts (171, 3rd behind Sugiuchi and Wakui) and hit batsmen (7, tied for 6th).

The 21-year-old was 11-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 2010, missing over two months of action due to a pectoral tear and a pulled quad muscle. He still finished among the PL leaders in ERA (third behind Darvish and Masaru Takeda), 10th in wins, second in complete games (8, behind Darvish) and WHIP (1.23, 7th between Wada and Wakui).

Tanaka had a great season in 2011, becoming the second Rakuten hurler to win the Sawamura Award (following Iwakuma). He was 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA (the league had changed baseballs prior to 2011 and offensive levels fell), 241 strikeouts, 171 hits and only 27 walks in 226 1/3 IP. He tossed six shutouts and had a 18-strikeout gem. He made his fourth All-Star team. He led the league in wins (tied with D.J. Houlton), ERA (.17 ahead of Darvish), complete games (14) and shutouts (tied with Darvish). He was also among the leaders in innings (second to Darvish), hits allowed (171, 4th), wild pitches (7, tied for 3rd), strikeouts (second to Darvish), WHIP (.087, .004 behind Darvish) and opponent average (.212, third behind Darvish and Sugiuchi). Darvish was the runner-up for the Sawamura. He got 43 first-place votes and 414 total vote points for the 2011 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award, finishing second behind Seiichi Uchikawa (120, 757).

He fell off a bit (10-4, 1.87, 169 K in 173 IP, only 19 BB) in 2012 and was among the PL leaders in ERA (2nd, .16 behind Mitsuo Yoshikawa), strikeouts (1st by 11 over Yoshikawa), shutouts (3, tied for first with Kenji Otonari and Yoshikawa), wins (tied for 9th with Kazuhisa Ishii and Brian Wolfe) and complete games (8, 2 more than Otonari). Yoshikawa was named to the Best Nine while Tadashi Settsu got the Sawamura Award.

In the 2013 World Baseball Classic, he made four appearances for Japan and was okay overall though not dominant (10 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 12 K, 0 BB in 7 IP, no decisions); Kenta Maeda and Otonari were the starters most relied on. In his lone start, he lasted just two innings against the underdog Brazilian national team. He allowed first-inning singles to Paulo Orlando and Leonardo Reginatto with an error by Takashi Toritani in between for an unearned run. In the second, he allowed one-out singles to Tiago Magalhães and Juan Muñiz before Diego França hit into a face-saving double play. Sugiuchi relieved him in the third and Japan rallied to win. Against Cuba, he relieved Otonari in the 4th inning of a loss and promptly allowed a single to José Miguel Fernández and RBI double to Frederich Cepeda; he fanned 6 of the next 7 to avoid further harm and Hirokazu Sawamura relieved him in the 6th. Versus Taiwan in round 2, he relieved Settsu in the 6th with a 1-0 lead and pitched two perfect innings, fanning four more. In the 8th, with a 3-0 lead now, he allowed a single to Cheng-Min Peng, a double to Chih-Sheng Lin and a RBI single to Ssu-Chi Chou before Tetsuya Yamaguchi relieved to put out the threat. His last outing came in a 10-6 win over the Dutch national team. Relieving Sawamura in the 5th, he fanned Xander Bogaerts then retired Dashenko Ricardo and K'd Randolph Oduber; Takeru Imamura replaced him in the 6th. One positive was that he tied Hiram Burgos and Jose de la Torre for third in the event in strikeouts, behind only Maeda and Samuel Deduno.

Tanaka then had a record-setting 2013, with his second 1.27 ERA in three years. He finished 24-0 with 183 strikeouts to 32 walks in 212 IP. He led the PL in wins by 9 over Settsu, Chihiro Kaneko and Takahiro Norimoto), in ERA By .74 over Kaneko, was second to Kaneko with 8 complete games and was second in strikeouts (17 behind Kaneko). He became the 4th NPB hurler to go undefeated while qualifying for the ERA title, following Masaru Kageura (6-0 in 1936), Takao Misonoo (11-0 in 1937) and Shigekuni Mashiba (15-0 in 1981). He had the most wins since Keishi Suzuki in 1978. He set the NPB record for consecutive wins without a loss in a season, breaking Kazuhisa Inao's 56-year-old record of 20, broke Kazumi Saitoh's NPB record of wins in 16 straight games and broke Carl Hubbell's "world record" for consecutive wins over multiple seasons (24) by winning 29 since August 2012. No NPB hurler had ever led in wins without a loss. For his superb effort, he again won the Sawamura Award. He became the first unanimous Best Nine pick in the PL since Tadahito Iguchi and Kenji Johjima 10 years prior. He also was the unanimous winner of the 2013 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award. The 6th pitcher to win in the past 7 years in the PL. He took Rakuten to their first Japan Series. In Game 2, he went the distance with a 12-strikeout, 3-hit win over the Yomiuri Giants to tie the Series, a homer by Takayuki Terauchi the only real damage. With the bases loaded and two outs in the 6th inning of a scoreless game, he fanned former AL All-Star José López to end it. However, Lopez got his revenge in Game 6, hitting a key two-run homer as Tanaka's winning streak ended with a 4-2 loss to Yomiuri. He pitched a complete game that day, needing 160 pitches, but that did not deter his manager from using him to close the win the next day, when Rakuten won its first title with a 3-0 shutout of the Giants in Game 7 on November 3rd. Tanaka pitched a scoreless 9th inning and was credited with the save. At his request, he was called on to relieve Norimoto with the 3-0 lead. He allowed singles to Shuichi Murata and López but fanned pinch-hitter Kenji Yano to end the Series. He

Tanaka drew a lot of interest from MLB teams for 2014, expecting to be posted in the off-season, though this was complicated by negotiations over revisions to the posting system. Those negotiations led to MLB and NPB agreeing to a limit of $20 million for winning bids under the system - considerably less than the $50 million plus that had been bid in the past for pitchers comparable to Tanaka, such as Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Unhappy with the amount offered, Rakuten decided on December 19th not to go along with posting its star hurler, then less than a week later, on December 24th, turned around and announced that they would grant Tanaka's request. He wound up signing with the New York Yankees for seven years and $155 million on January 22, 2014. He made his big league debut as the Yankees' starter against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4th, with dozens of journalists having made the trip from Japan for the occasion. He started with a misstep as he gave up a lead-off homer to Melky Cabrera but then settled down to earn a 7-3 win, pitching 7 solid innings. He gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 6 hits, walked none and struck out 8. On April 16th, he gave up only 2 bunt singles over 8 innings while striking out 10 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs that the Yankees won, 3-0. When Michael Pineda followed him with another strong performance in the nitecap, leading to a 2-0 shutout, it was the first time since 1988 that a team had recorded two whitewashings in one day.

With a high three-quarters delivery Tanaka throws a four-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s (tops out at 96 mph), a hard-breaking low to mid-80s slider, a splitter, and a two-seam fastball.

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