By now, some of you have heard the name Yu Darvish. The only thing that most people know is that the Texas Rangers just spent $51.7 million dollars just to TALK TO THE GUY. If they can agree on a contract, Darvish would be released by his Japanese team (the mighty Nippon Ham Fighters), the $51.7 million would be paid to them (much like a buyout for any contract) and then Darvish would be free to sign a new, pre-negotiated contract with the Texas Rangers. If all went well, you'd see Darvish on a mound in Arlington in April.
So...who the hell is this guy?
Darvish's life story sounds like a bad improv student nervously rambling on and on about a character they just made in their head. However, none of this is untrue: Darvish was born 25 years ago to a Iranian father and a Japanese mother who met at a small college in St. Petersburg, Florida. Darvish was then raised in Japan, where he grew up playing baseball. In Japan, high school baseball has a following akin to how we follow college football or basketball. The nation watches high school championship playoffs similar to how we park it in front of the television during bowl games in December. Japan becomes transfixed on these young men just as they are starting puberty (that sounded wrong, but I'm not apologizing), scrutinizing the play of a 16 year-old in the local paper and simultaneously memorizing his statistics. Darvish ended his high school career with unworldly numbers: a 1.10 ERA, with 375 strikeouts in only 67 contests.
The next year Darvish was drafted straight out of high school by the Hokkaido-Nippon Ham Fighters. At the time, the Ham Fighters were one of the also-ran teams in Japan - not quite the mighty Tokyo Yomiuri Giants (the New York Yankees of the Japan League with 21 Japan Series titles and 33 pennants) or the dominant Seibu Lions (similar to the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League, with 13 titles and 21 pennants). While they enjoyed some success in Tokyo as co-tenants to the city with the Giants, they only enjoyed 2nd-tier status, akin to the pre-1980's New York Mets, or the eternal (or maybe not) standing of the Los Angeles Clippers. Only after a move to Sapporo on the continents Northern shores were the Ham Fighters able to find postseason success. Their rise to prominence coincided with Darvish's entrance into the majors, and I believe their franchise progress was more than just a lucky happenstance.
Darvish went on to have one of the most dominant careers in the history of Japanese Professional Baseball, beginning at the age of 18 years-old. After breaking into the bigs in 2007, Yu not only flourished as a starter, but helped the team continued its run of success in Sapporo. The Ham Fighters won two more pennants with Darvish anchoring the rotation, and in the process becoming national darlings - both the team and the pitcher. Yu became a household name, but not just because of his play on the diamond. Darvish, already exotic due to his Iranian-Japanese make-up, was made all the more striking with a 6'5" frame and rangey extremeties. In the homogenous nation of Japan, where 98% of the population is made up of full-blooded natives, Darvish's good looks only extended the country's fascination with his uniqueness. He is one of the few professional athletes in the world of his stature that pursued an offseason career (period), let alone a career as a professional model. By the age of 22, Darvish was one of the most well-known people in Japan.
Getting back to the sport itself, Yu's dominance features numbers only replicated in the states by names like Bob Gibson, Koufax, Clemens, Martinez and Maddux. His highest ERA in five seasons was 1.88, with a matching high WHIP of 1.015. His lowest strikeouts per 9 came in 2009, when he punched out a "measly" 8.3 batters per nine innings. Darvish walked at most 2.2 batters and allowed half a home run per nine innings.
What do these numbers mean? Compared to American pitchers, well, nothing. Pointing out his similarities to Maddux, Pedro, Roger, Gibson, Koufax, et al really holds no weight. He pitches in a completely different league, with a different style of play in a different era. This is to prove that Darvish in his young career absolutely dominated any hitter he went up against, at any point. It is relative to his situation of play, yes, but the point is that he not only met expectations, but exceeded them.
So how do we measure if this Japanese import is any different than the great successes of the past 20 years (Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda), one of the great busts (Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu) or just someone average (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kazuhisa Ishii)? As Japan league stats are pretty difficult to procure, so let's compare Darvish's numbers against the last import with much hype around him, Daisuke Matsuzaka:
Matsuzaka: 79-45, 2.81 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 1161 IP, 1141 K, 0.65 HR/9, 7.17 H/9, 2.98 BB/9, 8.84 K/9
Darvish: 76-28, 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 1024 IP, 1083 K, 0.30 HR/9, 6.1 H/9, 1.9 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
Wow. It's not even close. Beyond the similar win totals, Darvish's sparkling ERA is a full run lower than Daisuke's. He gave up less hits and home runs, as well as walked a batter less per nine innings. Not only was he getting guys out with contact, he was also destroying opposing players in the batter's box; Darvish had more strikeouts per nine innings.
What these numbers tell me is that Yu just had far more control over the ball in the strike zone, whether it was getting the batter to hit with poor contact or just making the guy miss entirely. He rarely walked a batter, and if he were to throw a complete game every time, he'd give up one home run every three games. Now that we know how Daisuke's numbers translate in the states (49-30, 4.25 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 4.4 BB/9, 8.2 K/9), it is obvious that it was his lack of control relative to Darvish's was exploited against Major League hitters. In a similar vein, we should be able to poke some holes in Yu's game. However, seeing as the guy was never prone to home runs, nor giving up hits or walks, I am just not sure how much Darvish's ability will suffer when coming over to America. Of course I don't expect anything close to a 1.72 ERA or a sub-1.00 WHIP as a starter, but I certainly think he is capable of being a number 1 or 2 starter as a Texas Ranger.
(Just for further comparison's sake, one of the greatest Japanese pitchers of all time, Hideo Nomo, finished his short Japanese career with a 78-46 record in 1051 innings pitched. His ERA sat at 3.15, with 10.3 strikeouts and 5 walks per nine innings. While his strikeout numbers were superior, Darvish's ERA and control was far more impressive than the notoriously wild Nomo)
More importantly, I've seen him pitch in person during the World Baseball Classic Finals. While this glorified exhibition game isn't the best litmus test to evaluate a pitcher, I have to note that Japan, and their opponents Korea, took a tremendous amount of pride in the tournament, sending their best players to participate. As a crowd of 54,000+ cheered both sides on, a 23 year-old Yu Darvish fearlessly came in to close the game. The paying audience was somewhat spellbound at the prospect of seeing this mysterious phenom from the East showing up on a Dodger Stadium mound. However, the deafening roar of a mostly Korean crowd didn't reflect any of that notion.
Even as people expected this pitcher they had never seen before to absolutely shut down the Korean offense, America was stunned to see that yes, Darvish was still just another pitcher. He allowed the tying score in the 9th inning, sending it to extras.
Undaunted, Darvish returned in the 10th inning to find himself with another 1 run lead. He unflinchingly threw a scoreless frame and won the game, and the tournament for Japan. Of course blowing a save in the "World Cup Final" of your sport is never the best ringing endorsement of anyone's talent, but as I sat and watched his body language and composure as the hopes of his nation were on him (and believe me - they really really cared over there), Darvish looked coldly towards the mound, completely unrattled. Nothing mattered to him more in that moment than winning that game. His intensity shouldn't be confused with Daisuke's aloofness or Nomo's stoic nature. He looked like a stone-cold killer out on the mound. One that wasn't afraid of any challenge, from anyone, anywhere in the world. It was in that moment that any statistic or number I'd read was corroborated with the performance I had just seen. Even in a moment of his imperfection, Darvish managed to show the world exactly the type of player he was.
I've seen the numbers and I've seen the man. Bring him here, Texas. We're ready to see one of the best pitchers in the world.