On December 19th, 2011, the Texas Rangers agreed to pay the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters $51.7 million for the rights to negotiate with 25-year-old pitcher, Yu Darvish. Should Darvish and the Rangers have been unable to come to terms on a contract to bring the Japanese-born right-hander to the United States, Texas would not have been obligated to pay the $51.7 million and Darvish would have pitched the 2012 season in Japan. $51.7 million is still, however, quite a bit of money to pay merely for the privilege of talking to a player and his representatives.
Yu Darvish did sign with the Texas Rangers on January 18th, 2012. He accepted a 6-year, $56 million contract. The Rangers will pay $5.5 million in 2012, $9.5 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014, $10 million in 2015, $10 million in 2016, and $11 million in 2017. Bonus millions await the young pitcher if he can garner regular and postseason awards as well as receiving high votes in Cy Young and MVP balloting. Darvish can activate a player-option to become a free agent in 2017 should he be able to finish 1st in Cy Young voting once and 2nd through 4th once, or 2nd in Cy Young voting once and 2nd through 4th twice before the 2017 season.
The Texas Rangers invested more than $100 million to sign a pitcher who had never competed professionally in the United States. The organization did this because Yu Darvish had been a champion at every level at which he had pitched. They did it because he had been pitching in Japan’s highest professional league since he was 18. They did it because, through 7 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball, he had compiled a record of 98-38 with an ERA just barely under 2.00. They did it because they believed these facts would translate to a stable, consistent number two pitcher at the Major League level. At least.
I think they were right.
THEM WHAT COME BEFORE
Previous to Yu Darvish there had been two comparably hyped Japanese pitchers who made the trip across the Pacific to join Major League clubs; Hideo Nomo in 1995 at 26 years old with the Dodgers and Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007 at 26 years old with the Red Sox. Neither was worth the frenzy, but Nomo had a very solid career. In his second season he became, and remains, the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter at Coor’s Field. Which, at that altitude, is quite noteworthy. In his debut for the Red Sox in April of 2001, Nomo added another no-hitter, pitching against the Orioles.
These were flashes of brilliance. Hideo Nomo could not sustain that level of pitching over a full campaign. In an 11(and change) season career in Major League Baseball, only once did he finish a season with an ERA under 3.00. Only during 4 seasons did he maintain an ERA under 4.00. For his career, Nomo was 123-109 with a 4.24 ERA. Though he twice led the league in strikeouts (once in his rookie season), Nomo never won 20 games. He never won a Cy Young award. He was only once voted an All-Star (also his rookie season). Hideo Nomo was good. Occasionally really good. But he was not great.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is a different, sadder tale. Even without the “gyro ball” of legend, Matsuzaka has shown that he has special talents. I do not believe that I have seen a pitcher so stingy after allowing himself to get into a bases-loaded situation. From the start of the 2008 season through June of the 2010 season, Daisuke faced 34 batters with the bases loaded. In that span he allowed one hit. That included a game against Kansas City in which he faced 6 batters with the sacks packed and conceded two runs without giving up a hit. Underlying those unique statistics, obviously, is the reality that Matsuzaka was prone to allowing men to reach base. In quantity. Largely due to his propensity to issue walks.
In 2007 and 2008, his first seasons in the Majors, Daisuke Matsuzaka posted a record of 33-15 with an ERA of 3.72. Starting in 2009 his arm began to fall apart. From the beginning of that season through the middle of May 2011, Daisuke started only 44 games for the Red Sox, going 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA. He was then placed on the DL. In early June of 2011, the Red Sox announced that Matsuzaka would undergo Tommy John surgery. He is expected to be prepared for a return to the bigs within the next month. I sincerely hope that Daisuke excels in the remainder of his career in Major League Baseball, but I cannot say that I consider that to be a probable eventuality.
WHY YU DARVISH MIGHT BE DIFFERENT
First, the Rangers have a different approach to pitching than many other MLB clubs. Nolan Ryan believed that teams had started “babying” their pitchers. To Ryan’s thinking, the League had become too concerned with pitch counts and limiting their pitchers’ activities between starts. In 2009, in an effort to buck that trend, Nolan Ryan’s Rangers invited a man named Allen Jaeger to work with their pitchers during Spring Training. Jaeger preaches a system that encourages pitchers to engage in different activities rather than limited activities between starts. A key component of this system is the “long toss”. Essentially, long toss is playing catch from as great a distance as one can comfortably throw the baseball.
Though I think it folly to believe there is any one system that is best for each and every pitcher, the system Jaeger encourages is much more similar to the way Japanese ball clubs treat their starters than it is to the way MLB clubs treat theirs. It has been argued, I would say legitimately, that a significant contributor to the injury problems Daisuke Matsuzaka has endured in his time with the Red Sox is that he was forced to adopt a drastically different between-start regimen than that to which his body had become accustomed. And, from what I have read, pitchers who follow Jaeger’s methodology have been less prone to injury of their pitching arm than the average starter in the Major Leagues.
Second, Yu Darvish is different. His win-percentage and ERA in Japan were remarkably better than both Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka’s. I knew this before seeing Darvish make his Major League debut. Something I had been unaware of before Darvish’s first start for the Rangers was his size. He is big. 6’5″, 215lbs. Even the Japanese pitchers are bigger in Texas.
This man is a power-pitcher. I have seen him hit 98 mph with his four-seamer. But, Darvish also boasts a two-seam fastball, a change-up, and an all-world curveball. That curve comes out of his hand looking like a fastball and then breaks about two feet. It takes phenomenal talent or luck on the hitter’s part to not look foolish with a swing and a miss when Darvish is locating his curveball in two-strike counts. He can throw each of his pitches at varying speeds with multiple arm-angles. From what I have seen, the man has, essentially, 15 different pitches.
In Darvish’s first start for the Rangers he struggled early against the Mariners. He gave up 4 runs in the first inning and 1 in the second. By the close of the second inning Darvish had settled down. Even having thrown over 40 pitches in the first Darvish managed to last into the sixth inning, not having allowed any runs to cross the plate after the 5 from the early part of the game. He exited after 5.2 to a deserved standing ovation from the friendly crowd in Arlington. Thanks to the Rangers’ ability to score 11 runs to that point, he still notched a win despite the shaky start.
I found out something else about the man during his first start. This was from a friend who is a Rangers fan. Not from the Texas commentators or any of the other media that had somehow failed to relay this story. Back in 2007, Darvish got a woman pregnant. As I understand it, they have pretty strict gun-control laws in Japan, so I am not sure if they have the shotguns necessary for a “shotgun wedding”. Regardless, Yu Darvish married the woman.
Saeko and Darvish would go on to have another child before getting divorced. Earlier this year. Right after he signed his big ol’ American contract. Welcome to the US of A, kid. We don’t give a shit what you do off the field so long as you can perform on it and at least pretend to feel bad about doing your dirt.
Another interesting little tidbit. As his name might have already suggested to those of you out there with global knowledge, Yu Darvish is not 100% Japanese. His mother is Japanese. His father is Iranian. They met while attending college in the United States. As the saying goes, “…there that is.”
Anyway, Darvish did not allow more than 1 earned run in any of his remaining 4 starts in April. Texas won each game. In five starts to begin his Major League career, Darvish went 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA. In each outing, he struggled to locate his four-seam fastball. First-pitch strikes have remained elusive. That trend continued in his sixth start yesterday against the Indians.
Darvish was opposed by Ubaldo Jimenez and, from the outset, the two of them seemed to be having a competition to see who could have the least control of his fastball and still manage not to give up any runs. Darvish lost that side-game and was tagged for four runs (three earned) in six innings. Much like his first start, that he made it that late in the game is a testament to his ability as he ran up a pretty high pitch count early. He also managed to strike out 11 batters. Wrap your noodle around that. The only pitch he had consistent control of was his curveball. He rarely managed a first-pitch strike and he still struck out 11. The man is talented. Unfortunately, the Rangers were not able to bail him out this time as they had been in his first start. The Rangers fell to the Tribe 4-2. So, Darvish has been saddled with the first loss of his career in Major League Baseball. He stands at 4-1 with a 2.54 ERA. Very respectable numbers.
I believe that Darvish is close to getting a handle on his fastball. And when he can start locating his four-seamer and two-seamer for first-pitch strikes, the American League is in trouble. Big, bad trouble. I think it safe to say that we have yet to see Darvish’s best. As such, I suggest you watch as much of this young righty as you can. Who knows? Someday you may be watching a Hall of Fame induction with the grandchildren telling them, “I saw him pitch way back when…”