By Jack Gallagher
TOKYO -- Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish.
Two hits, two misses.
That's the way it has gone for major league teams signing Japanese pitchers with outstanding records and can't-miss potential in Nippon Professional Baseball. Sometimes the reality has not lived up to the hype.
There have been others -- like Kei Igawa, who never deserved the contract the New York Yankees bestowed upon him in a knee-jerk reaction to the signing of Matsuzaka by the Boston Red Sox in 2007, and pitched just 16 games before being permanently banished to the minor leagues.
Nomo had a long and successful career. Irabu flamed out early. Matsuzaka is trying to come back after Tommy John surgery. Darvish has put up solid numbers in his two seasons in MLB. There have also been those in between, like Hiroki Kuroda, who has been a reliable starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees for the past six seasons, winning more than 60 games.
This brings us to the latest phenom to emerge from NPB. And phenom might be an understatement: Masahiro Tanaka of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles is enjoying the greatest season by a pitcher in the history of the Japanese game.
Tanaka is 22-0 this year with a 1.23 ERA and a WHIP of 0.94 as the catalyst for the Sendai-based team which wrapped up the Pacific League pennant on Thursday night with a victory over the Seibu Lions. Legendary manager Senichi Hoshino actually had Tanaka come out of the bullpen in the ninth inning to close out the clincher.
The 24-year-old Tanaka set a new NPB record for consecutive winning decisions in one season on Sept. 13, when he beat the Orix Buffaloes for his 21st victory. Tanaka broke the mark of 20 set by the legendary Kazuhisa "Iron Man" Inao in 1957. Inao shares the NPB record for wins in one season with 42, which he achieved in 1961.
Tanaka, a native of Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, has not lost a game since Aug. 19, 2012, a stretch of 26 straight decisions, also an NPB mark. (Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell set the MLB record of 24 with the New York Giants in 1936-37.) The 6-2, 205-pound right-hander has three no-decisions this season, but other than that has been nearly untouchable. He has allowed just 27 earned runs in 199 innings, while striking out 173 batters and walking just 30.
His career marks are off the charts. He is 97-37 is seven years as a pro, with an ERA of 2.30. In more than 1,300 innings, he has walked fewer than 300 batters.
Tanaka, called "Ma-kun" by both fans and the media, has always been seen as a reliable pitcher, and has continued to improve each season. But the question many in Japan are asking is: Why has he suddenly become unbeatable?
"He is maturing and a better pitcher now as he gets near 25 and close to his prime," said the GM of one NPB team. "His success this season is a combination of things. He is very motivated. He wants to go to the States. He wants to leave the Eagles with something when he goes."
"He has good velocity, command and a great demeanor," said a major league scout whose team has been one of several watching Tanaka closely. "He has a great splitter, which would make a difference in the majors."
The scout says Tanaka's determination is what resonates with many.
"He can strike out batters when he needs to," he stated. "He really knows how to bear down. His slider is his secondary pitcher. We project him as a No. 2 starter for most MLB clubs."
The NPB team GM agrees that Tanaka's split-finger pitch is what makes him special: "He can throw five pitches -- splitter, fastball, slider, changeup, curve -- with good command. But the splitter just disappears. That's why batters can't hit it."
While acknowledging it will be another loss for the Japanese game when Tanaka departs, the GM admits it's what's best for Tanaka.
"It's time for him to chase his dream. He is on a roll. He has confidence."
The GM also admits others in the Japanese game never saw this type of season coming for Tanaka.
"Nobody predicted this. It's beyond imagination."
Tanaka, who grew up near Osaka, moved to the northern island of Hokkaido for high school. There he led Komazawa Tomakomai to the championship in Japan's famed Koshien tournament (high school national championship) as a junior in 2005, and helped the team finish second as a senior. After being selected in the first round by the Eagles, Tanaka was the Pacific League's rookie of the year in 2007, when he went 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 186 innings.
Though it is no secret Tanaka wants to go to the majors, the Eagles are hoping he will stay at least one more season. If the team wins the Japan Series, he will surely depart; in all likelihood, he will even if they don't.
Though it has been more than two years now since the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, where the Eagles are based, reconstruction has progressed slowly. The team has truly been an inspiration to many who lost everything. While Tanaka has been the driving force behind Rakuten's success, the presence of former major leaguers Andruw Jones, Kazuo Matsui and Takashi Saito have also been important. But Tanaka's perfect season, in particular, has been a source of pride.
As with all Japanese pitchers, there will be concerns on the part of MLB teams about the amount of wear and tear Tanaka will bring with him when he crosses the Pacific. As a senior at Koshien, he threw an incredible 742 pitches in six games in the two-week tournament, which shattered the record 643 set by Matsuzaka in 1998.
Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese citizen to play in the majors when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964-65, and now an analyst for national broadcaster NHK, is high on Tanaka's prospects.
"He can make it in the majors," Murakami said. "He is smart, has good control and a good body. He is very solid."
One concern for Murakami, who previously worked as the director of Pacific Rim scouting for the Giants, is that pitching coaches in the majors will try to alter Tanaka's style.
"I have seen many coaches try to change the styles of pitchers over the years. In the bullpen they start adjusting mechanics." Murakami commented. "I hope this won't be the case with Tanaka. I would like to see him keep the same style he is using in Japan when he gets to the majors. He can be successful with it over there."
Murakami, who played 17 seasons in Japan after returning from the States, said Tanaka will have to adjust to the difference in the rotations. "He is pitching just once a week here and usually has six days between starts," he says. "He will start once every five days in the majors, so he will have to get used to that."
Murakami considers Tanaka a crafty pitcher despite his age and arm strength.
"This season he has not been throwing as hard as in the past and his strikeouts are down. This is a tactical move by him. He is pacing himself so he can go deeper into games. He has such great control and is so good at hitting the corners, that he is only overpowering hitters when he gets into a pinch and really needs a strikeout ... Darvish has a tendency to struggle with his control in the early innings of games, but Tanaka does not. He is very consistent."
Who does Murakami see as contenders for Tanaka's service after the season?
"I think the big-market clubs will all be considering him. The Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers. The Yankees could really use him. They need starting pitchers."
With MLB teams always in the market for pitching, and the Yankees and the Mets in particular both coming off disappointing seasons, how much will Tanaka cost in posting and contract fees?
"It's a market thing. With a blind bid you never know," noted the GM. "It depends on how desperate and lucrative the clubs are."
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Jack Gallagher is the executive sports editor of The Japan Times in Tokyo. He has been a sports journalist in Japan for 18 years and has been honored for his writing both domestically and internationally. He was previously an executive in public relations in the NBA and NFL Europe.