Yu Darvish has been generating lots of headlines stateside after rumors circulated last week that he had asked the Nippon Ham Fighters to make him available for MLB teams this winter. Shortly thereafter Darvish himself shot down these rumors, but did not rule out leaving Japan saying, “I haven’t decided anything [about my future].” Adding fuel to the fire is his recent choice to be represented by Arn Tellem and Don Nomura, agents well-known for helping Japanese players transition to Major League Baseball. Regardless of the timeline, it seems likely that Darvish will be playing in The Show eventually, perhaps as soon as 2012. Accordingly scouts from MLB teams have looked at Darvish, with the Yankees, Rangers and Nationals among others confirmed as having interest. Consequently, discussion of Darvish’s potential is just as important for those of us who are pretend GMs in the fantasy game. In case you know nothing about Darvish, here are some quick important facts that you should know before we go forward:
1. He is a Japanese pitcher on the verge of coming stateside
2. He is very good
3. He was once involved in a “major scandal” in Japan, where he was caught (gasp) smoking and gambling
4. He also goes by the Persian name Farid, meaning “glorious” (seriously)
Persian names and “character concerns” aside, what is really glorious is Darvish’s intimidating resume. In fact, it is hard to assign too much meaning to his numbers in Japan, simply because they are almost mind-boggling. In his five full seasons in the league, he has never posted an ERA above 2 and he has never had a K/9 below 8.3. What is even more remarkable is his control, as he seems almost allergic to walks (276/36 K/BB in 2011, over 232 IP). He has won almost every award possible in the Japan, including multiple MVP awards. Long story short, he has proven literally everything that he can prove in the Japanese game.
The question therefore becomes how can we translate that other-worldly success in Japan into realistic MLB and fantasy expectations. One way to do it would be to look at comparable players that have come over from Japan and compare their statistics. For example, in 2006 both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa pitched full seasons in Japan before bringing their game stateside. Their numbers look strikingly similar: 2.13 ERA 200/34 K/BB over 186 IP for Matsuzaka and 2.97 ERA 194/49 K/BB over 209 IP for Igawa. Both of these pitchers have largely struggled at the MLB level, and neither has had the control that their Japanese statistics suggested. As a result it may be easy to conclude that Japanese statistics are meaningless in projecting MLB pitchers. However, there are several differences in Darvish’s favor. For one thing, he is younger than either of the other two at the time that they arrived. Additionally, although Igawa and Matsuzaka were both great pitchers in Japan, neither ever posted such consistently dominant numbers as Darvish’s video game-like career.
In addition to the statistical edge on other Japanese imports, the scouting on Darvish is seemingly head and shoulders above. While the Japanese scouting reports read more like a flowery haiku than hard facts, I will try to report the facts with some of the juicier hyperboles thrown in. He is an imposing presence on the mound, standing at 6’5” tall, throwing from a 3 quarters arm angle. He has a plus fastball that sits in the mid 90s, but his strength is in his plethora of offspeed offerings. He has a breaking pitch with tremendous bite that “makes professional batters often look like junior high batters only seeing a curveball for the first time.” For good measure, he also mixes in a cutter, changeup, two-seam fastball and splitter. His intangibles seem in line as well. Unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was described as “content” on the mound, Darvish’s approach is more like a “pitcher on a mission.” Additionally, he is famous for his competitive spirit, often crying out in victory after key strikeouts. Finally, his personal conditioning and training habits are “legendary” among Japanese athletes.
Subjectivity and hearsay aside, a look at his PITCHf/x is equally impressive (courtesy of the guys at beyond the box score). For those of you not too familiar with PITCHf/x, to summarize what you see here is a plus 4 seam fastball, coupled with a nasty breaking pitch. The bite to the slider is truly remarkable, and the data backs that up. Batters were wildly waving and missing at the offering, as the SwStr% was over 60%. Additionally, Darvish was even able to locate his slider for strikes, resulting in several called strikes — a truly “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for the hitter. One possible knock is that he seems to love to pitch high and inside, a recipe that may make him susceptible to the longball. However, there is nothing in his Japanese statistics to suggest he is particularly prone to gopherballs. The PITCHf/x is based on a small sample size, so we did not get a good look at all of his secondary stuff, but from fastball and slider alone there is legit ace-upside stuff here.
Despite his sizeable upside, there are a number of red flags associated with Darvish, especially considering the amount of money it will cost an MLB to acquire him. Using Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 50 million dollar posting fee and 6 year, 52 million dollar contract as an example, teams looking to add Darvish are probably looking at more than a 100 million dollar investment. The most glaring red flag on Darvish is his sizeable workload. Although just 25, Darvish has averaged over 200 innings pitched per season from 2007-2011. In addition to his professional workload, he has also thrown meaningful innings in several “extracurricular” baseball activities including the Olympics, World Baseball Classic and Asian Games to name a few. There are also mild mechanical concerns. In the winter of 2006, Darvish injured his shoulder while throwing an exhibition game. This was later attributed to the strain that his screwball placed on his arm. He has since removed the pitch from his repertoire and replaced it with a splitter. While the right hander has shown no signs of injury or wearing down since then (his fastball velocity has generally increased from year to year), these red flags have to be at least mildly concerning to teams considering forking over considerable resources to land him.
For fantasy baseball purposes, it is difficult to know what to expect. It seems as though at the very least he will be a source of strikeouts that will not kill ratios secondary to his excellent control. His ceiling is sky high, but if I had to make a realistic comparison to a current player I would say he reminds me of Mat Latos or even Zack Greinke. Release points aside, they are hard throwers with blistering sliders and other good secondary offerings. However based on PITCHf/x Darvish’s slider is actually more impressive than Latos’s, while Greinke’s changeup may give him an edge. Either way, it is high praise for Darvish’s stuff to be on par with these great MLB arms. Whether he attains this upside will depend on how well he locates his pitches and adjusts to MLB hitters. In final analysis, Darvish will almost certainly provide an instant boost to whatever rotation he ends up joining, and it will likely be an exciting ride. We fantasy owners can only hope that it happens sooner rather than later.