Tanaka puts on dazzling show for Yanks in sim game
Japanese righty eager to ramp up competition after impressive 35-pitch session
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the split-second between Masahiro Tanaka's left foot landing on the mound and Francisco Cervelli's glove popping, you could hear the rapid clicking and shuttering of cameras. It was just an early-morning simulated game taking place on a back field at the Yankees' Spring Training complex, but Tanaka once again proved that he will draw a crowd like few others can.
He took the mound after veteran rotation-mates CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda finished up simulated games of their own, but there was no doubt Tanaka was the main attraction Monday morning at George M. Steinbrenner Field. In front of more than 75 interested onlookers, fans and media from two countries, Tanaka threw 35 pitches to infielders Scott Sizemore, Dean Anna and Zelous Wheeler.
All three hitters, Cervelli and manager Joe Girardi responded with rave reviews. Tanaka, meanwhile, is ready to ramp it up.
"I just feel that I'm pretty much ready to throw in a game," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "All I can say is I was throwing naturally out there."
Girardi doesn't know exactly when that will happen for Tanaka, the Yankees' $155 million Japanese right-hander, though it won't be until this weekend at the absolute earliest. But he's been impressed by Tanaka's command of all his pitches so far this spring, and he's looking forward to watching Tanaka finally step on the mound in a competitive environment.
"You want to see him out there against big league hitters, see how he does and see how he reacts," Girardi said. "I'm happy with the progress that he's made and how he has not tried to do too much. I think he's adapted to what we've asked him to do, and I think he's kind of embraced it. I do want to see him out there."
Girardi said the Yankees are mapping out a Spring Training pitching plan, and they don't know where Tanaka fits just yet. They haven't treated him differently than any other starting pitcher during workouts and drills, but they are planning to give him some extra rest as he adjusts from pitching once a week to every fifth day. When asked about his schedule, Tanaka said he would follow whatever instructions he receives from Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
One thing the Yankees aren't planning to adjust, at least at the moment, is Tanaka's diverse arsenal of pitches. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder has been throwing six pitches -- a four-seam fastball, two-seamer, slider, cutter, curveball and split-finger -- and he's capable of throwing a changeup as well.
Most pitchers are lucky if they have one or two pitches working well on a given day, and those who can command three in the same outing are generally going to be extremely successful. So there's an obvious question or two for a pitcher who presents such a wide-ranging array of offerings like Tanaka: Can he realistically command them all in a game? And how is a catcher supposed to signal six pitches with only five fingers?
"I think he can," Girardi said. "There's nothing that leads me to think he can't. ... You come up with signs. The great thing is, when you have a pitcher that has that many pitches, usually he has the signs that he's used, so you just adapt to that."
Cervelli, who had worked with Tanaka before during bullpen sessions, joked that he has to take off his glove to call for certain pitches. But he's seriously fascinated by Tanaka's potential based on what he's already seen this spring.
"It's great," Cervelli said. "I was trying everything because I don't know him. The more I catch, the more I know. He's able to do so many things. I'm looking forward to seeing everything in Spring Training because I just want to go prepared for the season. I think everybody's the same. Because he's got a lot of stuff, and the more we catch it, the more we try to study him, it's going to be better."
But if you ask the hitters who've seen his pitches up close and personal, Tanaka is already plenty good enough. Cervelli said Tanaka's splitter doesn't take such a late, quick dive as Kuroda's but moves even more from side to side. Anna said it was difficult to distinguish Tanaka's fastball from his "really dirty" splitter, which is also Kuroda's out pitch.
There are several other clear comparisons between the two Japanese right-handers, from the way they stride toward the plate to the hesitation in their deliveries.
"Similar arm actions. Similar windup," Sizemore said. "I would say Tanaka is just a little taller, so he has a little more of a downhill plane from his release to the strike zone. Other than that, pretty similar stuff. ... I was definitely impressed -- one, with his command, and two, with his stuff."
Girardi would add a third item to that list: He's impressed with how relaxed and well-adjusted Tanaka seems to be inside the Yankees' clubhouse. Girardi noted that Tanaka has "just fit in ... like adding any other free agent."
Well, maybe not quite like any other free agent. Not everyone draws that kind of a crowd for a 35-pitch simulated game.
"But there's good reason for it. The guy seems like he's got electric stuff," Sizemore said. "I know we're looking forward to seeing him in action once games start up."