NEW YORK -- David Cone had just started tinkering with a splitter around his 25th birthday, so the retired big league hurler is impressed that Masahiro Tanaka already throws one that can be rated as world-class.
"I don't know if it's the best split-fingered fastball in the world, but it's certainly among the top five right now," Cone said. "He has that kind of talent, in terms of velocity and movement."
Now an analyst with the YES Network, Cone said that he has been studying video of Tanaka's recent starts in Japan. Cone believes that Tanaka's splitter will translate immediately to be an impact pitch on big league mounds.
"When you look at a split-fingered fastball, having thrown it for most of my career, I look at how late it breaks," Cone said. "The late movement and the velocity it retains. He has both of those. He has high velocity and late movement on that splitter, which puts it among the best in the world."
Tanaka, 25, went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season and signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the Yankees in January. In addition to the splitter, Tanaka throws a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s, plus a curveball, slider, changeup and cutter.
"All indications are that he's a true professional and that he works extremely hard, and he comes prepared to pitch," Cone said. "He's really polished for a 25-year-old. When I was 25, I was still learning to throw a split-fingered fastball. He's 25 and he's got one of the best in the world. He's ready for this challenge, in my mind. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch him."
Fans will have an opportunity to form their own opinions on Monday at 7 p.m. ET, when the YES Network will replay Tanaka's June 9, 2013, start for Rakuten against the Yomiuri Giants. Tanaka pitched seven scoreless innings in that game, picking up his eighth win of the year.
Former big league catcher John Flaherty said that Tanaka's fastball "looks like it has a little more movement than I heard it did; it sinks in a bit on right-handed hitters, not enough to call it a sinker, but enough that the hitter will pay attention."
"His delivery is simple, and he loads up on his back leg well," Flaherty said. "He is quick to the plate out of the stretch, so Brian McCann is going to love that. It also looks like he is a good athlete and fields his position well."
Al Leiter, also a YES analyst, said that he believes Tanaka's stuff and repertoire will play well in the Majors.
"I really like his mound presence and disposition," Leiter said. "He pitches with a fire in his belly and is emotionally involved. I think Tanaka can be a front-end starter once he gets acclimated to the routine of American baseball."
Cone said that he expects the Yanks will try to give Tanaka some extra rest during the season, considering he will be making the physical adjustment to a five-man rotation after pitching once a week in Japan.
Cone added that the situation should be nothing like what the Yankees experienced with Hideki Irabu, who came to the Majors in 1997 and was generally viewed as a flop.
"Much different scenario," Cone said. "Tanaka is much more established than Irabu was at that time. Irabu was a different kind of a cat, too. He was a little aloof at the time, a little uncertain of whether he could pitch on the Major League level.
"I believe that Tanaka has dreamed about this. This is what he wanted. He chose the Yankees for a reason, and I give him a lot of credit for that. He could have gone anywhere, but he wanted the bright lights and he wanted the big city. That shows a lot of confidence."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.