Our series continues as Nathan looks at Kensuke Tanaka.
If he didn’t have such a great story, Kensuke Tanaka is exactly the kind of player you would forget about as soon as he was gone. You can’t sum up Tanaka’s season by looking at his stats (34 PA, .267/.353/.267); if I tried this wouldn’t be a very long article. Tanaka’s 2013 wasn’t about the stats; it wasn’t about the 15 games he played in, the 21 days he spent on the active roster, or the 0.3 WAR he contributed. It was about the culmination of a 14-year long journey, and a dream realized.
From a baseball operations standpoint, Tanaka was little more than a shot in the dark. When he signed with the Giants in January, Tanaka was a 31-year-old international free agent who had played the first 13 years of his career for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. A career .286/.356/.384 hitter in Japan, he was brought in to compete for the backup second base job, along with Wilson Valdez, Tony Abreu, and Nick Noonan. He didn’t get the job and went to Fresno, where he split time between second base and left field. He was called up on July 9th, and appeared as a left fielder and pinch hitter until he was sent back down on July 29th. Unfortunately, he was not brought up when rosters expanded in September.
Tanaka reportedly passed up a guaranteed contract worth $3 million in Japan to sign a minor league contract with the Giants. When asked why he would give up a guaranteed contract for a minor league deal with the Giants, he said “I wanted to learn the culture of America, I wanted to play baseball here. And I wanted a challenge.” (From an Andrew Baggarly column last spring.) Tanaka met that challenge head-on and gave it everything he had, even switching to a position he hadn’t played since 2006 in order to get a shot. A shot is what he earned, and he made the most of it, even getting a few highlight-reel plays in the process.
Listen to crowd in that second clip. Watch as the relief, exhilaration, and joy wash over his face. First career hits are often fun highlights to watch, but Tanaka’s has something special.
It feels a bit strange to end this post with our grades of Tanaka’s season, because his season wasn’t about the grade. On one hand, he was a largely-forgettable second-baseman-turned-outfielder. On the other, his season was the triumphant culmination of a life spent playing baseball, one that peaked with 21 days at the top of the baseball world. My hat is off to you, Kensuke Tanaka. Congratulations.