Hyperbole is nothing new for Masahiro Tanaka
The Japanese pitcher for whom the Yankees are prepared to bust their budget boasts a nasty split-fingered fastball, a catchy nickname and a flashy mound presence.
His name is Masahiro Tanaka, but you might as well call him "Ma-kun." ("Ma" comes from his first name; "kun" is a familiar way to address an equal.)
That's been his nickname since he was a dominant high school pitcher, and it has stuck throughout his seven-year pro career thanks to the entertaining way he ingratiates himself with the home crowd with his high-energy, fist-pumping antics following big outs.
Tanaka, 25, is coming off a season in which he went undefeated -- 24-0 in 27 regular-season starts -- with a 1.27 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 212 innings while leading the Rakuten Golden Eagles to their first Nippon Professional Baseball championship.
Although the memory of Kei Igawa's failure in pinstripes remains all too fresh for some Yankees fans, those who have seen Tanaka are certain he will follow in the footsteps of countryman Yu Darvish and thrive in the majors.
"To be honest with you, this year he looked bored," said former Met Craig Brazell, who has played six years in Japan and has faced Tanaka. "He looked bored at times. It's kind of the way Darvish pitched his last year in Japan. He needed a new challenge."
And now he's getting it. When Rakuten announced last month it was making Tanaka available to major-league teams, he immediately became baseball's most coveted free agent.
Under the new posting system, a team can negotiate with Tanaka as long as it consents to pay his Japanese team $20 million upon signing him, and the Yankees were among the first teams to reach out to agent Casey Close.
The intense media spotlight on Tanaka is nothing new. He's been heavily scouted, covered by Japanese media and talked about by fans since he helped his high school, Komadai Tomakomai, win consecutive national championships as a sophomore and junior before falling short in the final game his senior year in 2006.
Rakuten drafted him first that year and gave the 18-year-old a spot in their rotation at the start of the next season. His pro debut in March 2007 was heavily hyped, and it fell well short of expectations. Facing the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Tanaka gave up six runs, six hits and a walk in 12/3 innings -- and he appeared to take the rough outing to heart.
"He spent the rest of the game in the dugout teary-eyed, crying," said C.J. Nitkowski, a former Mets and Yankees reliever who was on the opposing team that day. "He just stayed in the dugout, didn't go in the clubhouse. You could tell it was a pride thing, that he let the team down."
But Tanaka wasn't knocked down for long. He won 11 games as a rookie, with more strikeouts (196) than innings (1861/3), showing a glimpse of what was to come.
When Nitkowski left Japan a year later, he said he had already seen enough of Tanaka to believe that as long as he remained healthy, he would one day come to the majors amid much hoopla and money.
That day is finally upon Tanaka, and the timing comes as no surprise. Most baseball people expected Tanaka to be posted this offseason, which is why he was scouted extensively by many organizations this season, the Yankees included.
Tanaka throws a mid-90s fastball (rare for an NBP pitcher), has impeccable control (1.4 walks per nine innings last year) and uses his split as his out pitch. What makes his high-80s split so effective, Brazell said, is that he uses the same arm action as his fastball, leaving a hitter to guess.
"This year he was a completely different pitcher from the times I've faced him in the past," Brazell said. "He was a lot more polished. His split went from being you could see it coming to now it looked just like a fastball and then all of a sudden it goes straight down."
Listed at 6-2 and 205 pounds, Tanaka also has a bigger frame than most Japanese league pitchers, which is why teams might not be too scared off by his high pitch counts. For example, he threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the NBP championship series last year, then came back the next day to pitch the ninth inning.
But Marty Brown, who managed Tanaka's team in 2010, said his high pitch counts are less significant because pitchers in Japan typically get six days off between starts compared to four days here.
What seems certain to everyone who's come in contact with Tanaka is that he won't be overwhelmed by wherever he winds up, including Yankee Stadium.
Those who watched him pitch last year say he's as ready as he's going to be.
"You never know how a prospect playing in Huntsville, Ala., is going to do when he's all of a sudden pitching at Yankee Stadium, but that's not a factor here with Tanaka," said Vinny Rottino, a former Met who played on the Orix Buffaloes last season.
"You're not going to have that question of 'Is this guy going to be a deer in headlights?' He won't be."