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The Return to Japan: The Masahiro Tanaka Story

It is every Japanese baseball player's dream to transition to Major League Baseball, though only a few are able to make the jump, and even fewer have similar results as they had in Japan. While Tanaka made the shocking announcement to return to Japan, we discuss other Japanese baseball players who have taken a similar path and explore whether Tanaka will remain in Japan or return to the majors in the future. This article contains affiliate links - If you purchase through the links below, we earn money that goes towards supporting the maintenance and development of this site.

Tanaka’s First Stint in Japan

Masahiro Tanaka pitching for the Rakuten Eagles in 2013
Masahiro Tanaka pitching for the Rakuten Eagles in 2013

Masahiro Tanaka made his debut with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007. Over his seven-year career with the franchise, Tanaka posted a remarkable 99-35 record. He had a microscopic 2.30 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while throwing 1,238 strikeouts over 1,315 innings. In Tanaka’s final season with the Golden Eagles in 2013, Tanaka went 24-0 with a ridiculous 1.27 ERA and .94 WHIP while tossing eight complete games. 

The Golden Eagles faced off versus the dominant Yomiuri Giants in the 2013 Japan Series. In game two of the series, Tanaka fanned 12 batters while tossing a complete game as the Golden Eagles prevailed 2-1. Tanaka also started game six of the series, and while taking the loss, he threw a ridiculous 160 pitches. In the deciding game seven, Tanaka was called upon in the ninth to close out the game, which he did successfully. Led by Tanaka, the 2013 Japan Series was the first appearance and championship in franchise history.

Tanaka’s Major League Statistics

After the 2013 season with the Golden Eagles, Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees. He made his major league debut with the Yankees in 2014. In his rookie campaign, Tanaka was lights out. He started 20 games for the Yankees while recording a 13-5 record with a 2.77 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Tanaka also recorded more than a strikeout per inning in his rookie season, with 141 strikeouts in 136.1 innings. Over Tanaka’s seven-year career with the Yankees, he had a 3.74 ERA and 1.13 WHIP while throwing 991 strikeouts over 1,054.1 innings.


The Shocking Announcement

Tanaka poses for pictures during a Rakuten Eagles press conference
Tanaka poses for pictures during a Rakuten Eagles press conference

On January 28, 2021, Masahiro Tanaka made the unexpected announcement that he would be returning to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. In the past, Japanese baseball players who have made the jump from the Nippon Professional Baseball league have returned to Japan in the latter part of their career to end where they started. However, Tanaka appears to have still a lot to prove. 

The Path Often Taken

Hiroki Kuroda

Hiroki Kuroda pitching for the Yankees in 2013
Hiroki Kuroda pitching for the Yankees in 2013 – Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Making his debut with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 1997, Hiroki Kuroda played in the Nippon Professional Baseball league from 1997 until 2007. In 13 foreign seasons, Kuroda had a 3.55 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, along with 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Kuroda leaped the majors in 2008 as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over his major league career with the Dodgers and Yankees, Kuroda had similar numbers to what he posted in the NPB, as he posted a 3.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP along with 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. After playing in the majors from 2008 until 2014, Kuroda Came back to Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 2015, before hanging up his cleats after the 2016 season.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching for the Mets in 2014
Daisuke Matsuzaka pitching for the Mets in 2014

Making his Nippon Professional Baseball appearance with the Seibu Lions in 1999, Daisuke Matsuzaka had an 11-year career in Japan. Matsuzaka had an exceptional career in Japan, with a 114-65 record and a 3.04 ERA, and 1.16 WHIP while totaling 1,410 strikeouts over 1,464.1 innings. Unfortunately, Matsuzaka’s talents didn’t translate well in the majors. The right-handed pitcher played eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, where he had a 4.45 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. Matsuzaka moved back to Japan in 2015 in NPB with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Now at the age of 40, Matsuzaka will suit back up for the Seibu Lions, where it all started in the latter part of his career.

Takashi Saito

Takashi Saito pitching for the Dodgers in 2007
Takashi Saito pitching for the Dodgers in 2007

Takashi Saito made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut back in 1992 with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales. The Yokohama Tayio Whales changed their name to the Yokohama BayStars, where Saito continued to play from 1993 until 2005. Over Saito’s six-year NPB career, he went 91-81 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.24 WHIP as a starter. Saito then vaulted to the majors in 2006 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. While primarily a starting pitcher in Japan, Saito made the adjustment to a relief pitcher in the majors. Saito played in 403 games in his NPB career while starting 208, though he appeared in 338 games in the majors while making zero starts. 

Saito was a dominant relief pitcher in the majors while going 21-15 with a 2.34 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. In the NPB, Saito recorded 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, though, in the majors, Saito recorded 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Over his seven-year major league career, Saito recorded 84 saves while tossing 400 strikeouts in 338 innings while earning an All-Star nod in 2007. Saito moved back to Japan after the 2012 season, where he became a member of the Rakuten Eagles to finish his 23-year career.

The Tanaka Saga

While Masahiro Tanaka has made the unexpected bounce back to the Nippon Professional Baseball league where he began his career, he’s yet to rule out a return back to Major League Baseball. Tanaka signed a two-year deal worth $17 million with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, which includes an opt-out after the 2nd season. Brian Cashman, the Yankees GM and Senior VP since 1998, has said that he’s open to having Tanaka as a member of the Yankees clubhouse in the future should he decide to make a return.

Tanaka had an extraordinary career in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, though he was reasonably unpredictable in his major league career thus far. Despite the transition to the majors, Tanaka has still flashed brilliance over his seven-year major league career. Tanaka may ultimately return to form and display his dominance in Japan as he was accustomed to from 2007 until 2013. Only time will tell if the right-handed pitcher will remain in Japan for the remainder of his career or if he will make another appearance in the majors.

Masahiro Tanaka New York Yankees MLB Debut Gold Coin Photomint

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