Since the New York Yankees pulled off the biggest offseason signing by inking Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal, there has been a lot of talk about possibly limiting the youngster’s pitch count.
Think, the “Tanaka Rules,” reminiscent of the famous “Joba Rules” imposed on Joba Chamberlain as he attempted to make the transition to the starting lineup from the bullpen. Yankee fans will remember that experiment not working out so well.
Most sources close to the situation opine that the Yankees don’t plan to impose such drastic restrictions, but that they do plan to be careful with their new hurler. Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman said of limiting Tanaka (via nj.com), “You always have concerns. That’s always something you can’t ignore or deny. But despite that, clearly [with] the competitive bidding on him, with his age, his talent, the scouting assessments on him and the pitching market the way it is – it’s certainly something [on which] we’re willing to take the risk.”
Certainly there is merit to the argument for rest. MLB is different than NPB in a few key ways regarding pitching. First, Tanaka only pitched once per week in Japan as opposed to the once per five days he’ll see in New York. Second, the offenses he’ll face are deemed by most professional scouts to be just a slight cut above NPB hitters. The ball is a little different, the mound is a little different and the strike zone is a little different. These things will all take time to adjust to.
But, we’ve seen that it can be done. The Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish pitched his first MLB season in 2012 following seven years in NPB. Darvish has been masterful, combining for a 29-18 record in his first two MLB seasons and posting a 3.34 ERA – all while pitching right around 200 innings both years and suffering no major injuries.
The Yankees will likely want to ease Tanaka into things, to product their hefty investment, and I don’t necessarily blame them. But I also think that trying to limit players from doing what they do best is a dangerous practice. Tanaka could take a line drive to the ankle like Andy Pettitte did last year just as easily as a few extra innings could sideline him.
Here’s my thought. Now this is a bit out there, so bear with me. Maybe Major League pitchers are coddled too much. Baseball folks generally agree that the Joba Rules basically broke Chamberlain and ruined any chances of his becoming a starter.
Here’s the other thing. Throwing a baseball at high rates of speed a few thousand times each year – that’s going to damage your arm. It just is. Pitchers know this. We are getting to a point where Tommy John surgery is about as common as the common cold. In fact, I’d even venture to guess that Tanaka will have to have it at some point.
The thing about Tommy John surgery, though, is that it’s not a death sentence for a career. In fact, many players come back stronger and throw harder after the long and extensive rehabilitation period following surgery. Then again…
Tanaka has thrown 1,315 innings in his professional baseball career. To put this in perspective, other pitchers with similar totals entering their age-25 seasons include Felix Hernandez (1,154 2/3), CC Sabathia (972 2/3) and Clayton Kershaw (944). There is a list full of big name pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, but want to hear something weird? None of these guys are on it.
There is such a thing as over-managing a situation – thinking too hard about something. Tanaka famously threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series last year and returned the following day to toss 15 relief pitches in Game 7.
Newsflash: that type of abuse is not good for your arm. Tanaka might need Tommy John or another surgery at some point, and the Yankees should cross that bridge when they come to it. Until then, let the players play.