As Masahiro Tanaka makes his way through his first Major League Baseball season, every time out is a test for the New York Yankees' Japanese phenom. Some tests are bigger than others, which was the case Tuesday night in the rookie right-hander's initial outing against the archrival Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
As he did in each of his first three tests—two of which came against other AL East foes—Tanaka once again passed with flying colors in leading the Yankees to a 9-3 victory over Boston by throwing 7.1 innings and allowing only two runs on seven hits while striking out seven and walking none.
Tuesday's outing marked the fourth out of four in which Tanaka pitched at least seven innings and whiffed at least as many hitters as innings pitched.
In his four starts so far, Tanaka has done exactly what the Yankees had hoped—and needed—when they chose to go all in on a pitcher with no MLB experience by inking him to a seven-year, $155 million contract. Better yet, three of his games have come against division opponents: Prior to the win over Boston, Tanaka beat the Toronto Blue Jays in his debut before taking on the Baltimore Orioles his second time out.
Tanaka's opposition so far is especially relevant because not only is the AL East widely considered the toughest, most competitive division in baseball, but those three clubs in particular are among the very best offenses in the sport. In fact, the Red Sox (first), Orioles (tied for fifth) and Blue Jays (ninth) each ranked in the top 10 in runs scored, as well as home runs and slugging percentage, in 2013.
Sure, the rosters aren't the same after an offseason of change and some injuries, but let's not pretend to play down how potent the Red Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays lineups can be. Let's also remember that the parks in which he's pitched to this point—the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Yankee Stadium and now Fenway Park—are among the most hitter-friendly in the majors.
"The thing that impresses you," Red Sox manager John Farrell said via Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe even before his club actually faced Tanaka, "is how quickly he's acclimated to the major leagues from a different culture."
Here's a rundown of Tanaka's performances in each intra-division matchup:
|Tanaka Vs. AL East|
|DATE||OPPONENT||2013 RUNS (RANK)||IP||R (ER)||H (HR)||K:BB||DEC|
|4/4||Blue Jays||853 (1)||7.0||3 (2)||6 (1)||8:0||W|
|4/9||Orioles||745 (t-5)||7.0||3 (3)||7 (1)||10:1||ND|
|4/22||Red Sox||712 (9)||7.1||2 (2)||7 (2)||7:0||W|
|TOTAL||21.1||8 (7)||20 (4)||25:1||2-0|
Add in Tanaka's dominant win over the Chicago Cubs last week in his third turn, and the 25-year-old is sporting a 2.15 ERA and 0.82 WHIP to go with a 3-0 record in his first 29.1 innings overall.
The numbers that are most impressive and encouraging so far are 35 and 2. That's Tanaka's strikeout-to-walk ratio, which proves that he's capable of retiring big league batters by himself while simultaneously limiting baserunners—and the damage that often comes with them—by avoiding bases on balls.
To that end, after registering 73 strikes on his 105 pitches Tuesday, Tanaka now has thrown 285 out of 410 total pitches in the strike zone, which translates to an astounding 69.5 percent, well above the MLB average of 63.3 percent.
Tanaka's control has come in handy too, because if there is one aspect of his outings to nitpick, it's that he has surrendered four home runs in his 29.1 frames, including two to the Red Sox in the form of back-to-back solo shots by David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in the fourth inning.
That's 1.2 homers per nine, which is higher than the MLB average this season. So far, three of the four home runs have been of the solo variety—the other was a three-run job—in large part because Tanaka has prevented baserunners. And while this is a very small sample size, it's the sort of thing that could bite Tanaka at an inopportune moment.
In other words, yes, Tanaka does have something to work on in preparation for his next start. That one is scheduled to be Sunday, when he just so happens to pitch against the Los Angeles Angels and some guy who currently is leading the majors in home runs and reached No. 500 for his career on Tuesday.
And so after acing the Red Sox, Masahiro Tanaka's next test comes in the form of Albert Pujols.
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