Yu Darvish has been and will continue to be a hot topic for at least another week, until we learn which MLB team placed the highest bid for his negotiating rights. It could very well be the Yankees since they have the most money and the need in the rotation, but if you believe what they’ve been saying the last few days, they might not even make a bid at all. I have a hard time believing that, but I guess stranger things have happened.
Meanwhile, until we find out who wins the bid, we’re left debating why the Yankees should or shouldn’t pursue Darvish. We all have our own opinions, but for the most part we’re lacking information. We just don’t know much about the guy, just what we’ve ready over the last year or two. I’m not sure many of us have seen him pitch regularly, and it’s tough to have an informed opinion that way. In an effort to shed some light on Darvish, I’m bringing in Patrick Newman of the indispensable NPB Tracker for some help since he’s actually seen the guy pitch pretty regularly over the last few years.
I met Patrick for the first (and only) time this part March, while in Arizona catching some Spring Training games. We chatted about Darvish and some other players, but what stuck with me most was the list of flaws Patrick rattled off about Japan’s best pitcher. One thing I remembered was him saying that Darvish would get away with some pitches in Japan that MLB hitters wouldn’t let him forget, but otherwise I couldn’t remember much of the conversation. I asked him to repeat that list of flaws to share with the RAB faithful, and he ended up writing nearly 450 words about Darvish. Here are those 450-ish words, unabridged…
First of all, you have a really good memory.
My assessment of Darvish was based on what I saw last season (2010). My big concerns were that he seemed to go to his vertical slider (which is really more like a power curve) quite a bit, and my perception was that he was leaving a lot of them hanging over the middle of the plate. NPB hitters seemed to foul those pitches back a lot of the time, and he wouldn’t get away with those types against MLB hitters. Also last year, he showed a lot of 90-92 mph fastballs, and would top out around 95.
This season he was a lot better. The most obvious difference was his fastball velocity, which was more consistently around 94 and touched 97 on his best days. His cutter seemed to take a step forward this year, giving him three pitches above 90 mph with movement (2-seamer, 4-seamer, cutter). I think the velocity gains are real, as he added 10 kg of strength to his frame last offseason. I didn’t really see the same mistakes with his slider this year, he actually looked like he was using all his stuff effectively. There would be times when decent hitters would start to catch up and foul off his harder stuff, and he’d come right back with a slow curve or softer slider, and the hitter would be helpless. So he looked better overall this year, and my concerns about his mistake pitches and velocity are mostly gone. He’ll certainly still make the odd mistake, as he’s not a robot, but I’m more optimistic about him than I have been of anyone in the past.
Most of these are eyeball-level observations, drawn from memory of the games I watched during the season. So grains of salt apply. Here’s some data for reference and additional context: http://npbtracker.com/data/
This doesn’t mean that Darvish is without question marks. All the usual stuff applies — five-day rotation, different ball, different mound, facing batters that can actually hit home runs, being prepared mentally, coping with travel, etc. I have the impression that Nippon Ham has really let Darvish do his own thing — he tends to tweak his delivery a lot, more than any other pitcher I can think of offhand. Who knows if an MLB pitching coach is going to be cool with that? Also keep in mind that Darvish is going to have more pressure and attention than possibly any player that has preceded him. Ichiro was stalked relentlessly by the Japanese media when he joined the Mariners, but I don’t think the Americans necessarily expected much from him. American fans have been anticipating Darvish for years, so he’ll have the Japanese insanity and the American expectations to live up to. I think he will be successful though, and I hope he is.
I’m glad Patrick reminded us that Darvish isn’t a robot, I feel like we often get too caught up in expecting players — especially pitchers — to be perfect all the time. Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing is fond of saying that it’s not easy to throw a strike, and I think we often forget that. Anyway, it’s good to see that I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Darvish getting away with mistake pitches in Japan, and it’s also good to see that he’s basically as good as ever at the moment. It would be hard for him to pick a better time to come to MLB.
The one thing that I think is important to point out here is that Darvish isn’t Daisuke Matsuzaka, the last mega-hyped pitcher to come out of Japan. Dice-K’s best season with the Seibu Lions was probably 2005, when he pitched to a 2.30 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 215 IP (9.46 K/9). You can make a case that his 2006 season was better — 2.13 ERA with 200 K in 186.1 IP (9.66 K/9) — but I don’t think it’s worth the argument. Now compare that Darvish, who over the last five seasons has averaged a 1.72 ERA with 217 strikeouts in 205 IP (9.53 K/9) for the Nippon Ham Fighters. Dice-K’s best season with the Lions would probably be Darvish’s sixth best season with the Fighters.
Anyway, all we can do now is wait, wait to see if the Yankees placed a bid and wait to see who wins the right to talk to the guy. Darvish certain passes the eye test as a 6-foot-5, 220 lb. right-hander that can dial his fastball up to 97 with an assortment of breaking balls to use when ahead in the count, but there’s always going to be that element of the unknown until he gets on the bump for an MLB team.