© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

On The Mound For The Yankees: $155 Million Well Spent


How many of us can look in the mirror and say, I really am worth the $155 million they paid for me? Well, if they are the New York Yankees and you are Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, you may answer in the affirmative. In January, the Yankees paid a fortune to sign Tanaka, and he has been simply brilliant. Last night, he got his 11th win, which leads the major leagues. He's just lost once, and he's the league leader in just about every pitching stat you can think of and some you probably can't even think of. We talked to Grantland's Jonah Keri when the Yankees signed Tanaka, so it makes sense that we bring him back. Welcome back to the program, Jonah.

JONAH KERI: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Tanaka famously did not lose a game in his final season in Japan, so we knew he was pretty good. Did anyone really know how good he is?

KERI: Yeah, I mean, we covered him back in 2013, and what you were looking for was not necessarily only the stats, although they were unbelievably impressive. But you were looking at the repertoire, too. And the thing that stands out about Tanaka is, you know, even the best pitchers might have two really good pitches. Maybe they'll throw a really good fastball and let's say a curve or change-up or slider. Tanaka throws three, four, five quality fantastic pitches, and really the killer pitch is his split-finger fastball - splitter.

It's phenomenal. It's a pitch that hasn't really been all that prevalent in the game going back a while, and what you see is that it's far more prevalent among Japanese pitchers. And Tanaka has wielded it better than anybody. I don't know if we could've said that he was going to be 1 of the 5 best pitchers in the world right away, but that's what ended up happening.

SIEGEL: Explain the splitter and why it is that it isn't so prominent in the U.S.

KERI: Well, it's not a easy pitch to throw. I mean, it basically - first of all, you have to have a pretty big hand to throw it. On a normal fastball, your fingers are kind of close together, and you throw it. That's it. With a splitter, you're wedging the ball basically between your index finger and your middle finger, and you’re throwing it as hard as possible. So what the effect is, is it’s still pretty hard, but it absolutely dives off the table. It's the same effect as if you threw a spitball, which of course is not allowed. It's a fascinating pitch, and when you do it really well, it's as devastating as any.

SIEGEL: There are rookie pitchers who get off to a very good start but then after the batters in the league see him a couple of times, a couple more times, they figure him out. Do you think that's going to happen with Tanaka?

KERI: No, and here's why. I think it has to do with that diverse repertoire, that if people start sitting on the splitting or lay off the splitter, because often it ends up being a ball, then he'll just start pumping fastballs by you or sliders. And the other thing that's interesting about him is he is not only talented, but a real cerebral pitcher, that understands sequencing and how to exploit hitter weaknesses. And what's really fascinating about this, of course, is he doesn't know these hitters specifically. He has Brian McCann, who's a terrific, terrific defensive catcher for the Yankees, working with him. But I think a lot of it comes from Tanaka himself, just having a feel for it and just understanding what the hitter brings and what he can do to exploit it.

SIEGEL: He's 25. He's not that much older than pitchers that might come up through the minor-league system of a major-league ball-club here in the states. Should he be treated as a rookie even though he's had a career in Japan already and their major leagues?

KERI: Yeah, it's a fair question. And we can throw Jose Abreu in there, too, slugger for the Chicago White Sox. He's 26 or 27, and he is, quote-unquote, "a rookie," too, but he came over from Cuba. And both of these guys dominated in their home countries. So here's what I'd say, for rookie-of-the-year purposes, I guess it's probably not going to change. But I guarantee you, for baseball purposes, nobody's treating him with kid gloves. For all intensive purposes, he is not a rookie. He's an instant ace. He's the best pitcher on the glamour franchise in all of baseball right away, regardless of how service time he has.

SIEGEL: Jonah, thanks for talking with us once again.

KERI: Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: That's sports writer Jonah Keri of Grantland talking to us about Masahiro Tanaka, pitcher for the New York Yankees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.