Yankees Magazine: Split Personality

For five successful seasons, Masahiro Tanaka has balanced impeccable command and a fiery competitiveness on the field with a playful, positive attitude off it

October 12th, 2018
New York Yankees

On the days he starts, leans back in his chair in the spacious Yankees clubhouse. His legs are tilted straight up at an angle to the floor, feet perched flat against the glass partition that separates one locker from the next. Or, in Tanaka's case, the glass offering privacy from the open doorway that leads out of the clubhouse toward manager Aaron Boone's office and that of equipment manager Rob Cucuzza.
While the pitcher often has headphones on while he lounges during the hours prior to game time, today he is enjoying (or more likely ignoring) the rap mix has blasting in the locker room. The soon-to-be 30-year-old is fixated on his iPad with the No. 19 displayed upside-down on the back cover. It's unclear if the few intermittent yawns are because he's tired, bored or just so focused on what he's doing that it is draining him. Regardless, there's no worry that he'll have a narcoleptic episode while on the Yankee Stadium mound tonight. Out there, this laid-back, chilled-out Tanaka transforms into something entirely different.
"Masa in the clubhouse is quiet, goes about his business," says catcher . "He'll be loose and joke around a little bit, but he's just quiet. When he gets on the mound, it's a complete flip. He's locked in. Every movement he has is for a reason. He's animated at times, and he expects a lot. I think that flows over into the game."

"On the mound, he's serious," adds. "He's thinking about his job; he's focused. Sometimes when he's coming off the mound, I'll try to look in his eyes, but he's so focused he can't even see me. He's two different people."
That focus was clearly on display Aug. 27. While this particular contest didn't have quite as much riding on it as some of the others Tanaka has pitched (his 1-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the 2017 American League Division Series comes to mind), his determination on the mound never wavers.
In the top of the fourth inning of a scoreless game against the White Sox, Tanaka had loaded the bases with nobody out. The Yankees -- looking to notch their fifth straight win despite a depleted lineup missing the names Judge, Sanchez and Gregorius -- had managed just one hit against Chicago's emerging ace, . Tanaka knew he had to at least limit the damage in this inning, or his team would be in a tough spot.
"I think No. 1 is just going batter by batter and then pitch by pitch," Tanaka says, assisted by Major League interpreter Shingo Horie. "You can't let your mind get caught up in, 'Bases loaded, no outs, oh my God!' You've got to look at it small and basically look at it one pitch at a time and try to execute that pitch. That's obviously an important thing. The other important thing really comes down to the strong burning desire to want to get out of that inning. You really have to want that result."
Tanaka struck out the next two batters, then induced a ground ball up the middle that ricocheted off his glove and right to , who fired the ball to first to end the inning. Tanaka roared as he walked off the mound. In the bottom of the frame, after a walk and a flyout, Torres crushed his 20th home run of the season to straightaway center field to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead.
Although three errors would contribute to an eventual 6-2 loss, that fourth-inning execution was quintessential Tanaka. He is calm and soft-spoken off the mound and disarmingly witty. On the hill, he is an intense competitor with a burning desire to be perfect and an arsenal unlike many others in Major League Baseball. And it's been his honor to put both sides of himself on display for Yankees fans these last five years.
Heading into 2014, was coming off a down season; his years as an ace seemed behind him. The Yankees were in the market for a young arm to anchor their pitching staff, and the seven-year, $155 million pact to which they signed 25-year-old Tanaka implied that he was just the man for the job.
When Tanaka made the decision to leave stardom in Japan for an uncertain future in America, he brought with him a 24-0 record and championship ring from his last season as a Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagle. Along with those achievements, though, came huge expectations that likely incurred some baggage fees on the flight over to the States.
Five years into the deal, Tanaka has mostly lived up to those expectations. The pitcher made the All-Star team in 2014 and finished fifth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. He has started three Opening Days for the Yankees and has racked up double-digit wins every year.
The control specialist has been a stabilizing force in a rotation that has seen 27 pitchers (including Tanaka) take the mound to start for the Yankees since 2014. Sabathia is the only other holdover from that first year. Despite trips to the disabled list in 2014, '15, '17 and '18, Tanaka has made at least 20 starts every season. In his lone year without a DL stint, the right-hander went 14-4 and placed seventh in the 2016 American League Cy Young Award voting.
Through the beginning of September this year, Tanaka was 62-33 lifetime with a 3.60 ERA and 773 strikeouts in 128 regular season games. And while the numbers are impressive, where Tanaka has truly thrived has been in the biggest moments. Whether it's a marquee matchup with an entire country watching (such as his outing against countryman last year) or a postseason tilt with the Yankees' season on the line, Tanaka seems to rise to the occasion when it matters most.
"Being able to have that on/off switch is important to me," Tanaka says. "But I think it's something that happens naturally."
That natural propensity to get to another level has produced enviable results in the most important of circumstances. In Tanaka's mind, when that switch is turned on to "compete mode," the spotlight is squarely on him -- a feeling that endures whenever he's on the mound.
"I think he treats every situation like a big game so when that situation comes around, it's nothing he's not used to," Romine says. "He treats every pitch like it's the biggest pitch of the game, and I think that's why he has success. I think that's why he's so good at locating. His focus is there on every pitch, and when you practice that over and over like he does, when the moments come where it's actually like that, I don't think he knows anything other than, 'I'm just trying to make this pitch.' I think that fact that he treats every pitch like a high-leverage situation, when those high-leverage situations come, he's good to go."
It's in those situations that Tanaka comes alive, and the fierce competitor explodes from his body. His devastating splitter/slider combination -- part of a repertoire he has spent his entire life perfecting and learning to execute with precision -- becomes almost unfair to opposing batters.
"He's almost surgical in the way he works," Romine says. "He has pinpoint control at times. His slider and his splitter, when they're both on, can be pretty devastating. He knows what he's trying to do, he knows where he's trying to throw the ball, and he commands it. He expects a lot of himself, and you'll see him get frustrated on the mound because he expects to be perfect every time he goes out. He's one of the more fun guys to catch on this team just because he can put it where he wants, and he can move it the way he wants."
When both pitches are working -- along with a two-seam fastball, sinker and the occasional curve -- watching Tanaka outsmart hitters is like witnessing the most intricate ballet at The Met.
The pitcher moves easily yet methodically on the mound. In the batter's box, hitters watch helplessly as a pitch that looks straight as an arrow for 55 feet suddenly disappears, leaving them swinging wildly and pirouetting back to the dugout as Tanaka racks up another strikeout.
"I'm approaching my 30s, and on top of that, you look around the league and you see all these huge guys, and I can't compete with them when it comes to the velocity of the pitches or the velocity of the fastball," Tanaka says. "It has to be somewhere else where I approach the game, and for me that is to command the ball well. I think the most important aspect of being able to command the ball well really comes down to the mechanics; being able to repeat the exact mechanics is when you get good results on the pitches. That's obviously the key to it, but it's that hard part of doing it on the other hand. But just to be able to work on the mechanics, knowing where the flaws are at times, and being able to adjust that helps me in being a better command pitcher consistently."
Last year, Tanaka had batters swinging at 37.8 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone, the highest rate in the Majors. Through Sept. 21 of this year, batters were chasing his pitches just as frequently, and Tanaka was relying on his slider and splitter more than ever before. According to Brooks Baseball, he opted for the slider 33.7 percent of the time and the split 30.7 percent. He induced swings on 47.5 percent of the sliders and 63.5 percent of splitters, with a 15.2 and 22.6 whiff percentage, respectively.
"Everything comes out the same, so it's hard to pick up, especially for a right-handed hitter," says first baseman Luke Voit. "A right-handed splitter or change-up can be very effective because you think it's a fastball, and then it flops off the table."
Far from blowing people away, Tanaka is fooling them with movement and control in a way rarely seen in today's game, which is becoming more and more reliant on speed and power.

"I think the difference is all about how you grow up when you're playing," Severino explains. "In Japan, it's about mechanics and how you're moving the ball. In the Dominican, you just throw the ball -- throw it down the middle as hard as you can. I think Tanaka is one of the greatest and smartest pitchers in baseball. When his stuff is on, when he's got the good stuff, his split-finger, his sinker, he'll throw like 25 pitches -- all sinkers and sliders and splits -- wherever he wants. He can go right or left, and that's something you don't see that often -- a guy who can throw the pitch exactly when and how they want to. It's unbelievable."
"I think it's a God-given talent," Romine says. "If everybody could do it, there would be more guys doing that. But he was born with the ability to throw the ball and do what he wants with it. I couldn't tell you why."
Tanaka will tell you there is no miracle happening; it is a game of constant adjustment and toying with the minutiae of finger pressure, arm slot, focus and confidence. But more than anything, the pitcher says it's about knowing exactly who you want to be on the mound, then doing whatever you need to do in order to become that person.
"In between starts, you're thinking about this ideal pitch form or mechanics," he says. "You have it in your mind, and you're visualizing it and trying to get to that leading up to the start. Once you get to the start, it's not necessarily there. There might be some aspect of it that might be off, so it's more trying to be able to adjust to be able to control the ball and just looking at trying to locate it where the glove is more than anything. So, the first part, the in-between starts part of it, is about going for the ideal mechanics. And the second part, the in-game part, is just making the adjustments you need to in order to get through that game."
If it seems like Tanaka has lived two lifetimes, it's because he kind of has. Between playing seven seasons professionally in Japan and five years in the Majors, Tanaka has made more than 300 career starts, winning better than 70 percent of them, and has eclipsed 2,000 strikeouts. He has succeeded, and he has failed. He has gained knowledge and doled some out, too. "He's young, but he's one of the veterans here," Severino says.
Tanaka has pitched in the Olympics, the Japan Series and under the October lights in Yankee Stadium. He has come through in each situation.
But the man who was on the mound then is nothing like the one at his locker right now. It's two days after his last start, 48 hours before his next, and he smiles as he leans against the glass partition. Tanaka has just walked off the field, past the Yankees' batting cages and into the clubhouse. He stealthily approaches a member of the Japanese press corps from behind and, very gently, bends his knee into the back of the reporter's knee, causing the scribe to lurch forward. Tanaka, the reporter and the staffers nearby all laugh.
But the switch is about to be flipped, if only for a moment.
Tanaka is reminded of last year's playoff run, of how close his team came to World Series glory and how, shortly thereafter, he chose to decline an opt-out clause in his contract in order to remain with the Yankees and continue his pursuit of a championship in pinstripes. The pitcher is asked to think about what it all means to him, and to visualize what it would feel like to blend the two careers and the two personalities into one Tanaka who achieves the ultimate success.
"Experiencing what we experienced last year, going through those playoff games and really soaking in what really happened and being a part of that, you feel like you want to go there again," he says. "I feel fortunate to be on this team because of all the players and all the staff I've been fortunate enough to be able to work with. I feel good about the decision to stay here, and if we're able to, number one go to the World Series and number two win the World Series, it will obviously be one of the highlights of my baseball career."