Masahiro Tanaka on TV for the first time on Wednesday afternoon. The highly regarded Japanese import started the first game of a day-night doubleheader against the Cubs at Yankee Stadium, and I have to say I was impressed.
Tanaka fired eight shutout innings in New York's 3-0 victory. He struck out 10 and walked just one, while surrendering only two hits. And, oh, both those hits were bunts. That was the extent of the Cubs' offense on this day. Tanaka threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced, and had only two 3-ball counts the entire afternoon. He was simply overpowering.
Some scouts have said Tanaka has the best split-finger fastball they've ever seen. I'm in no position to argue. He had Cubs hitters swinging and missing at that pitch all afternoon. They couldn't hit it, nor could they lay off it. For the most part, Tanaka was starting his splitter at the bottom of the strike zone, enticing the Cubs hitters to swing at it, but it would fall out of sight before it reached home plate.
I also was impressed by Tanaka's ability to change the hitter's eye level. He wasn't afraid to pitch up in the zone with his fastball. A few of the Cubs hitters took belt-high fastballs that were right over the plate. They were probably looking for the splitter and got out-guessed. Tanaka also showed he could grab a first-pitch strike by using his slider. He got ahead in the count against almost everybody, and that made for a long afternoon for the Chicago hitters.
Tanaka reminded me a bit of the late 2005 version of Jose Contreras, when his split-finger was overpowering opposing hitters. Tanaka doesn't have as much heat on his fastball as Contreras did, but his slider is probably better. And the two pitchers are similar in the sense that you could tell a hitter the splitter is coming, and they still wouldn't be able to do anything about it.
Through the first 22 innings of his major league career, Tanaka has struck out 28 and walked just two. He's allowed six runs (five earned) through his first three starts, and all of those runs were scored in either the first inning or the second inning. From the third inning on, he has allowed nothing in each of his three outings.
When it comes to ace pitchers, they always say you better get them early in the count, and you better get them early in the game, otherwise you aren't going to get them. Tanaka has been an example of that thus far.
All that said, it is worth noting that the Cubs' offense stinks. The North Siders were blanked 2-0 by Michael Pineda and three New York relievers in Wednesday's nightcap. The Cubs, who fell to 4-10 on the season, are not swinging the bats well right now and are hardly the toughest test Tanaka will face.
There are some good hitters in the AL East. Boston and Baltimore, in particular, have strong lineups when all their players are healthy. The more you face an opposing pitcher, the more you know, and it will be interesting to see how the AL East hitters adjust the second, third or fourth time they see Tanaka as the season moves along. That will be the true test to see just how good this guy is.