January 2014

Rising Son: Tanaka separate from the pack

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In 2008 Sports Illustrated published an in-depth article on the life on Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang, appropriately entitled, Chien-Ming Wang has a secret. In his native country of Taiwan, the former sinker-baller was a celebrity. He couldn’t get out of his car in Taiwan without getting mobbed by worshipping fans. Yet when he walked down the streets in New York City, he was barely bothered; no one hounded him or even recognized him. The piece delved into his personal life, as well as how he developed his signature pitch.

It was an interesting story on the foreign pitcher. One a reader could thoroughly enjoy.

Yesterday the Yanks landed 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, luring him to the Bronx with a pact worth $155 million over seven years; thus snagging the hurler from the Rakuten Eagles. Tanaka has put up staggering numbers in Japan since his debut in Nippon Pro Baseball in 2007, winning several awards and attaining superstardom along the way.

Masahiro Tanaka

This writer does not in fact know whether or not Tanaka can walk down the streets of Tokyo without being mobbed. Only time will tell if he will be able to take a stroll in Times Square without the hassle of adoring fans and media. But over the next seven years, rest assured, we’ll learn a lot about this newcomer.

What we do know now is that he was 24-0 in NPB last year with a microscopic earned run average of 1.27. Over the last three seasons alone he piled up 53 wins and only lost three games, posting an ERA of 1.44. For the sake of getting too analytical, most folks are predicting his WAR to have impressive range, meaning he will be worth a heck of a lot of victories throughout his Yankee tenure.

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His total WAR is going to be 16.8 after seven years.

No! It’s got to be 6.8 per season.

Thanks for your input, Twitter.

Notwithstanding the ever-glorious, overanalyzed “wins above replacement” stat, his regular numbers from the Far East are unheard of here in the United States – and even in Japan, those numbers leap out at you, giving a lot of pundits and writers the impression he is separated from the pack of aces.

Take for example Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was a well-sought-after pitcher during the 2006-07 offseason. His best season in Japan (pitching for the Seibu Lions) was the year right before he signed with Boston, being 2006.

Dice-K’s numbers that season: 17-5, 2.13 ERA, 186.1 innings pitched, and 200 strikeouts. His transition to Major League Baseball wasn’t anything special, going 15-12 with an ERA of 4.40 his first season in Beantown with the Red Sox, which was of course ’07. His workload got a bit heavier that year (204.2 IP) but the number of Ks was consistent; in fact, one more than his previous season at 201 strikeouts.

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His claim to fame was his 2008 season in Boston when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA, which could be attributed to a lighter amount of innings – 167.2. His K total also fell to 154 strikeouts. From there, the “Dice Man” became nothing to write home to Japan about.

Point being Dice-K is not exactly comparable to Tanaka. Neither is Kei Igawa (a teammate of Matsuzaka’s from the Seibu Lions) who the Yanks acquired prior to 2007. Igawa’s best year in Japan came in 2003 when he was 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA; 206 IP, amassing 179 strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning he never won more than 14 games in a single season for the Lions after ‘03.

That being said, Igawa never made a difference in New York. Before he was let go he finished with a 2-4 record in pinstripes, a 6.66 earned run average, and he struck out just 53 batters.

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In other words, he was a bad investment. Igawa’s ERA describes his time in New York perfectly, being the mark of the devil, and for the record, there’s no chance he was mobbed by fans. Frankly, if Yankee fans were to have seen Igawa in the street (that is if they would have even recognized him to begin with) they probably would have thrown eggs and tomatoes at him.

And no, he cannot be compared to Tanaka.

Even the great Yu Darvish cannot truly be compared to Tanaka. His best season for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters was 2011, the year before he came to the states and joined the Texas Rangers. In ’11, Darvish went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA; 232 innings pitched and a mind-blowing 276 strikeouts.

While 18 is a strong number in terms of win total, it’s not quite on par with Tanaka’s 24 from last season, although Darvish’s first two seasons in MLB weren’t bad:

2012: 16-9, 3.90 ERA, 232 IP, 221 Ks.

2013: 13-9, 2.83 ERA, 209.2 IP, 277 Ks.

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And while we won’t know what Tanaka’s numbers will be over the course of his first two seasons in pinstripes for another couple years, we do know his numbers were better than Darvish’s were overseas.

Hisashi Iwakuma, a Japanese starter who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2012, only mustered up 29 wins over his last three seasons in Japan (2009-11, for the Golden Eagles) – a far cry from the 53 Tanaka has racked up over his last three seasons pitching in the land of the rising sun.

Hisashi Iwakuma

It’s quite possible Tanaka is the best Japanese-born starting pitcher we’ve ever seen – at least that’s what the numbers suggest. Better in his native Japan than Matsuzaka; better than Igawa, better than Darvish, better than Iwakuma – and maybe even better than Hideo Nomo.

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Nomo was MLB’s first notable Japanese import, and he pitched for the Kintetsu Buffaloes from 1990-94. The most wins he notched in a single season in the Far East: like Darvish, 18. Again, not as many as Tanaka’s 24.

The truth is we won’t know how well his stuff will translate from NPB to MLB until we receive a sample size, which could be a year or two. Yet if his numbers, compared to the other Japanese-born starters, are any indication, he will surely succeed. He could potentially go soaring above and beyond the realm of accomplishments of the other Japanese pitchers.

And if Tanaka does indeed dominate, there’s a good chance he won’t be as lucky walking down the streets of New York as Wang once was. The man from Japan might just become a little too popular to go unrecognized in the city that never sleeps.

But that all depends on how he does. And you can bet your life Yankee Universe will be watching.

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Mo vs. Mick: Why Mo is better

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I will assume most of the readers of Yankee Yapping are familiar with the Wall Street Journal, a prestigious newspaper founded in 1889, based out of New York City. Now, unless you are a journalism major or have taken a newspaper history class, I will assume most readers are unaware of how the Wall Street Journal developed its own style of story.

A Wall Street Journal-style story always starts with a specific example; names and situations, usually focusing on one topic. The story then gradually delves into that topic with general information, and then at the end reverts back to the specific example used to start the story.

And most of the endings have what’s called a “circle kicker” or a twist; a turn of events.

It’s all very fantastic, genius even. Think of what’s about to happen here as a Wall Street Journal-style blog post. Chances are there will be some backlash, another journalistic term, meaning a strong or adverse reaction by a large number of people. Although some readers might very well agree and feel the same way I do about this next graf.

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Mariano Rivera was better than Mickey Mantle.

(Ducks, hides, takes cover)

There. I said it. That’s your specific example; the topic. Now, general information might contradict that statement, or at least suggest otherwise.

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Mantle, in 18 seasons with the Yankees, was a 20-time (allow me to reiterate, 20-time!) all-star, a three-time AL MVP, and a seven-time World Series champion. The “Commerce Comet” won the Triple Crown in 1956 (52 HR, 130 RBI, .353 BA), and was selected (first ballot) to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974. Mantle’s number 7 is lying proudly behind the center field wall in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.

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Rivera, in 19 seasons in pinstripes, was a 13-time all-star, an ALCS MVP (2003), a World Series MVP (1999), an All-Star game MVP (2013), and a five-time World Series champion. He saved more games than any other closer in baseball history (652), owns more saves than any other closer in the postseason (42), and his number 42 was also placed in Monument Park – even before his last game, making him the first Yankee to have his number retired while still a part of the active roster.

In general consideration, both of these Yankee legends’ numbers speak for themselves. It’s difficult to even compare their numbers, as Mantle was a hitter; a position player, while Rivera was a specialty pitcher. Many folks may even say the two are incomparable – or, there is simply no comparing them. It’s impossible to say who was better on the field.

On the field, yes. Maybe incomparable. But here’s where it gets specific again.

In 1973, Yankee Stadium was coming up on its 50-year anniversary. The president of the Yankees at the time, Robert Fishel, reached out to a number of former Yankee players before the House that Ruth Built’s anny, asking them to write down their “most outstanding” Yankee Stadium moment.

Fishel sent a letter to ”The Mick” and asked him to name his most outstanding moment at Yankee Stadium, and also asked him to describe it as best he could: where it took place and when. Mantle’s answer was childish and disturbing.

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I had to censor some of Mantle’s answer, for fear of MLBlogs and the MLB community becoming offended, but using your knowledge, it’s not difficult to determine what Mantle wrote.

A lot of people undoubtedly laughed at the response. Some surely even commended it. “That’s our Mickey! Ha ha ha! Way to go!”

When I first read it, however, I didn’t find humor in the sophomoric response. I didn’t think of the way everyone most assuredly got a chuckle out of Mantle’s answer. Perhaps I just don’t think the way everyone else does, because I only thought of one person:

I thought of Mariano Rivera. I thought of what “The Sandman’s” response would have been to that letter. I thought of what moment he might have picked – and how classy the answer would have been. I thought of how Rivera would have thanked God for whatever the moment was.

Maybe Rivera would have selected celebrating the 1996 World Series victory on Yankee Stadium soil as his favorite moment. Mo’s most outstanding memory could have also been closing out Game 4 in 1999, riding out of the big ballpark in the Bronx on the shoulders of his teammates after being named MVP of the fall classic.

Collapsing with pure joy on the mound after Aaron Boone clubbed the Yanks into the World Series on that fateful October night in 2003 – perhaps that was Rivera’s special moment. Or maybe Sept. 22, 2013, “Mariano Rivera Day” would have been what he wrote back.

Mariano Rivera

Whatever his answer would’ve been, it would’ve defeated Mantle’s in classiness.

Readers are certainly entitled to their own opinions on this rather controversial topic, but the specific example is what it is. Rivera outclassed Mantle in every way over the course of his career, even if their stats are incomparable.

And that’s why Rivera was better. There’s your circle kicker.

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