Yu Darvish: The next great Yankee righthander?

Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Yu Darvish, a 24-year-old righthander who, by many accounts, is not only the best pitcher in Japan but may have the potential to become one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, recently took over the comment thread of our post looking at next offseason, as it’s expected the Yankees will be all over him when the Nippon Ham Fighters post him next winter.

And if the Yankees really do want him, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did whatever it takes next winter. Between a rather uninspiring crop of free agent starters, as well as the fact that they can reallocate the $160 million they were willing to spend on Cliff Lee and put it toward what could be a Daisuke Matsuzaka-esque $50 million posting fee, along with what RAB’s Mike Axisa expects to be a Felix Hernandez-type contract, for a total cost of around $130 million, the Yankees seem poised to be able to make a big splash with Darvish.

Of course, they may also have to worry about re-signing CC Sabathia if he exercises that pesky opt-out. For as much as I laud CC for publicly stating on multiple occasions that he has no intention of doing so, unless it’s not all about the money — and this could be possible, given that Lee’s and Gil Meche‘s actions this past offseason have flown in the face of our pal Jason Rosenberg’s sardonically named blog — he would appear to have the Yankees over a barrel next winter, as the last thing they can afford to do is lose their most valuable player (team-high 11.4 fWAR over the past two seasons). But that’s a post (or, more likely, many many posts) for later this year.

Getting back to Darvish, it’s hard not to like what he’s done. Though only 24, he’s already played six seasons of professional baseball in Japan, racking up a minuscule 2.12 career ERA in 1,036.1 career innings. According to the B-Ref Bullpen, Darvish throws from a three-quarters arm slot in a drop-and-drive motion, and his two primary weapons are a four-seam fastball that usually sits around 91 to 94 mph and tops out at 97 mph, and a hard slider. His secondary pitches include a two-seamer, curveball, splitter, cutter and changeup. I’ve been analyzing a lot of pitching data of late, and almost all of the Japanese pitchers in MLB seemingly throw a little bit of everything, so it seems likely that Darvish actually does have seven pitches to go to, even though their level of effectiveness and frequency of use is obviously highly variable.

While the 1,000-plus innings on his arm may be cause for some concern, along with the fact that he’d need to adjust to pitching every five days as opposed to once a week, it’s simply impossible to ignore the staggering numbers he’s put up, as well as the fact that the acquiring team would be getting him beginning with his age-25 season.

Here’s what he’s done in his professional Japanese pitching career:

As I noted in the the 2011-2012 comment thread, The Hardball Times’ Oliver projection system has Darvish’s next six seasons projected as Major League Equivalents, and I’m not really sure what to make of them. His 2011 Major League Equivalent line per Oliver is 193 IP, 2.45 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 221 Ks, 10.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 0.4 HR/9, worth 6.4 WAR, which would have made him one of the top 5 pitchers in all of MLB last season.

Additionally, were he to hit those numbers in each and every season over the next six years — which Oliver more or less thinks he will, with WARs of 6.4, 6.3, 6.4, 6.4, 6.3 and 6.3, respectively — he’d be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball by a good margin. Given Oliver’s questionable projections for players who are actually in MLB, it’s hard to know what to do with MLE forecasts for a player who has only pitched in Japan. Not to mention the fact that, while Nippon Professional Baseball isn’t AAA, it’s also not MLB, and Darvish would be going from facing very good hitters to the best hitters in the world, although I have to imagine Oliver tries to account for difficulty level somewhere in its algorithm.

While Japanese hitters have had a bit more collective success — Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui of course immediately spring to mind — the MLB landscape is littered with the corpses of hyped-up Japanese pitchers, almost none of whom have lived up to it. Hideo Nomo had one spectacular season –his rookie year in 1995 — before muddling through 11 mostly league-average seasons, and finished his MLB career with a 98 ERA+. The Yankees’ first-ever big-time Japanese import, Hideki Irabu, never quite pitched to the level that many expected in his three seasons in the Bronx — although he did notch a surprising 109 ERA+ in that magical 1998 campaign — and wound up being traded to the Expos for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly and Christian Parker. The Yankees’ second big Japanese import — Kei Igawa — has of course been an unmitigated bust, and quite possibly the worst signing in team history, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the disaster that is Kei-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named made the Yankees just a tad gunshy when it comes to going all-in on a Japanese import next offseason.

And of course, the Red Sox made history with their $51 million posting fee bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka in the winter of 2006, who at the time had just come off his seventh season in Japan and had accumulated statistics nearly as gaudy as Darvish has. Daisuke’s final season in Japan saw him throw 186 innings of 2.13 ERA ball with a 0.92 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 1.6 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9, and in his Japanese career he threw over 1,100 innings with a career ERA of 2.95. For all of the crap Daisuke appears to have gotten from the Red Sox faithful, he’s actually been pretty solid for them in my opinion — four seasons of 4.18 ERA ball (110 ERA+), including a 160 ERA+ in 2008, is nothing to sneeze at in the AL East. He also seems to stymie the Yanks just about every time he faces them, so admittedly that’s coloring my analysis of his performance a little bit. However, I understand that the disappointment stems from the fact that Daisuke was touted as a future ace, and as such the Sox basically payed ace-level money to acquire him (over $100 million including the posting fee) and at this point it’s pretty clear that his talent level is closer to that of a #3-#4-type starter.

It should also be noted that, per this article from Fangraphs, Darvish has had three straight seasons better than any one Matsuzaka had in Japan. He also throws harder than Matsuzaka, and five his pitches are potentially above-average MLB pitches.

All of which is to say that it’s probably best to exercise a decent amount of restraint with Yu Darvish. Not that we can’t or shouldn’t get excited about his potential — I’ll admit, after spending the time researching Darvish for this post, I’m starting to fantasize about slotting him in right behind CC myself — but he’s still a relatively unknown quantity.

As the numbers show, Darvish is clearly a pretty unique talent, and as such the acquiring MLB team will likely be justified in the presumed $100 million-plus outlay it will take to get him. Even if we penalize Darvish for better competition in MLB, not to mention having to pitch in the AL East, as Mike Axisa noted in the aforelinked post up top, “It’s not like Darvish is Igawa though, he’s a power pitcher that misses bats and limits homers, so even if the AL East turns him into a 7.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9 guy, he’s essentially Matt Cain going forward. Any team would add that guy to their rotation.” Consider that statement co-signed.

Even if Darvish only pitched to 75% of his Oliver MLE projection for 2012, he’d still likely be a solid #2-#3 starter, and while he may end up not being worth the cost, it’s only money, and if any team can afford to take a $100 million risk, it’s a Yankee team that has $161M burning a hole in its pocket. Given the relative lack of appealing starting pitching options next winter, along with the fact that the Yankees will once again almost certainly need at least one quality starting pitcher, I’d expect them to be pretty close to all-in on Darvish.

19 thoughts on “Yu Darvish: The next great Yankee righthander?

  1. "The Yankees' second big Japanese import — Kei Igawa — has of course been an unmitigated bust, and quite possibly the worst signing in team history…"

    Does the name Carl Pavano mean anything to you?

    Otherwise, great post.

  2. Wow, for some reason Blogger's been eating some of my comments of late. About an hour ago I responded to Rob with the following:

    Hey Rob,

    I did a little digging around, and according to this Jim Caple article on Yu Darvish from ESPN the Magazine that appears to have been published around May 2008, Japanese baseball players can't become free agents until they have nine years of service time.

    At the the time it was written, Darvish was in his fourth season, and he just completed his sixth in 2010. The 2011 season will be his seventh, so technically he'd need to spend both 2012 and 2013 in Japan before becoming a true free agent for the 2014 season.

    So if he wants to play in America in 2012, the acquiring team will indeed have to pay a posting fee.

  3. After the Kei Igawa disaster, and after watching what Daisuke has become for what the Red Sox paid for him, and with some lingering memories of Hideki Irabu floating around for those of us who can remember how awful he was, do you think the Yankees go all in on the posting fee for Darvish?

    It seems like he is cut from a different mold than these other guys, and I would want him, but I think the posting fee is going to be closer to $60 mil + and I think the past failures of some other guys will make the Yanks a little gun shy.

  4. Hey Captain,

    As I noted in the post, those previous dalliances will no doubt weigh heavily on the Yankees during the decision-making process re: acquiring Darvish. Igawa in particular could prove to be a deal-breaker, but from everything I've read Darvish is light-years ahead of Igawa in terms of talent.

    As for Dice-K, I know there's been disappointment, but I wouldn't classify him as an unmitigated disaster like Igawa was. Did the Sox overpay for what looks to be a #3/#4 starter? Probably, but when you consider pitchers like A.J. Burnett and John Lackey each got $82 million, I'm not sure Dice-K is even that bad of an overpay.

    In any event, I trust that the Yankees will have performed a rigorous amount of due diligence before deciding whether to make such a significant financial commitment to a relatively unknown quantity.

    I think there's an awful lot to like if they do go in hard after him, and I can't really see too much downside. Sure, if he can't hack it then you've wasted $130M or whatever, but this is a team that inexplicably gave a set-up man $35 million, and so I'm not worried about a potential deal for Darvish affecting the team's ability to deploy capital to upgrade elsewhere as needed.

  5. I have sen him pitch live in Japan. The guy is definitely a major league material. He is far superior than any other pitcher in the NPB. The question is, how good can he perform in the AL East's biggest markets. Many fail due to the sheer power of the hitters. For many, it's the media pressure. either way once they lose their mojo, they're done.

    I can't predict the former, but this guy's mentally tough. Try growing up as a "half-breed" in an arguably the most bigoted society…and succeed! He'll be fine in the pinstripes.
    (I'm 100% Japanese, btw)

  6. Great piece on Darvish , Larry. Very informative.

    There does seem to be a real issue, though, with Japanese pitchers adjusting to pitching every five days, as opposed to once a week, which leads me to ask this question:

    If the Yankees are willing to spend $130 million plus on a guy like Darvish, why not have him pitch once a week for his first year in MLB?

    Remember, these men have to make a myriad of adjustments when they come here to live and work more than a 5,000 miles from home. Most of us, statistics show, live less than 50 miles from where we were born, and I think most of us vastly underestimate how difficult it is to adjust to living in an entirely different country and culture.

    Think about just some of the issues these men face when they move here: language differences, new and unfamiliar teammates, food differences, cultural differences, new umpires, new hitters of a higher quality, and difference in how fans interact with players. I doubt many, for example, if any Japanese players have ever heard fans scream "you suck" or listened to half a stadium chant "the Yankees suck, the Yankees suck."

    In light of the above, why not take the one adjustment you can control out of the equation for one year (i.e., his first year here)? Sure, this would require some juggling of the rotation and the occasional use of a spot starter, but isn't it worth it to capitalize on your $130 million investment?

    That just makes sense to me. What do you think, Larry?

  7. Larry,

    One other thing, did you see this Yardbarker post about Andy Pettitte? Here’s the link:


    The post claims the Yankees plan on offering Andy only $12 million to come back in 2011, to which I say the following: somebody needs to smack Cashman (et al) in the head with a heavy mallet if that's all they're going to offer Andy to induce him out of retirement.

    The Yankees offered $21 million plus to a 32-year-old pitcher for 7 years, and NOW they want to skimp on a pitcher we desperately need when we're faced with the prospects of watching Sergio Mitre get his butt kicked every five days! Are you *%$#& kidding me? Offer Andy $15-16 million for god's sake (prorated, if necessary, for a partial season), and tell him we want an answer within one week.

    The Yankees have very short memories. Remember what happened last time they basically insulted Andy and took his loyalty for granted during contract negotiations? He ended up signing with Houston; this time, he’ll probably retire, which we truly can’t afford this year.

  8. Hey Wayne,

    Those are certainly valid concerns, and none of us could ever know what it's like to move from your home country to a completely foreign place and make your living pitching to the best hitters on the planet in front of 50,000 people every night. That being said, I tend to think that becoming a millionaire many times over would go a long way toward allaying any of Darvish's assimilation concerns, but maybe that's just me being cynical.

    As far as pitching Darvish once a week in MLB, it's an interesting idea, but I just don't see how or why any team would do it. You're basically screwing the rest of the rotation up for the sake of one pitcher. Plus, to get maximum value out of Darvish, you need him to make closer to 35 starts instead of ~25. If pitching Darvish once a week is the only way to get him comfortable enough to pitch stateside, then that;s a big no-thank-you for me.

    Re: Pettitte, I would take that Rosenthal article with several tons of salt. That article to me says that Ken had nothing to write about today — there's no new information in there, just pure speculation. Let's get something straight: if the Yankees offer Pettitte $12M, and he says no and that he can only come back for $15M to $16M, do you really think the Yankees would let a $3-$4M difference get in the way? After overpaying like crazy for Soriano, there's just zero chance of that happening — they'd get CRUSHED by the media and the fanbase if word got out that the reason Andy didn't come back was a difference of a measly $4 million. I'm sure Hank could pull that kind of money out of a couch cushion somewhere. In short, I wouldn't worry about it. If Andy doesn't come back, I highly doubt it will be because they didn't offer him enough.

  9. Oh, also Anon @3:36PM — it's great to hear from someone who's actually seen him pitch live, and also that you think he's got the mental fortitude to succeed in the AL East. Thanks for the info.

  10. "…as it's expected the Yankees will be all over him when the Nippon Ham Fighters post him next winter."

    The Fighters will only post him when he asks them to do so. And so far he has always denied any desire to move to the MLB. Where did you get that info from?

    -Jan from Germany

  11. My understanding is that he USED TO maintain that he wanted to stay in Japan until he split from his soon to be ex-wife. Word is that he wants the divorce to go through first (and thus the settlement), prior to cashing in big-time in MLB. Makes sense.

  12. Hey found this post from mlbtraderumors. Great writeup, very interesting to see his stats and how he could possibly stack up in MLB. Wanna nitpick one thing though, Hiroki Kuroda is a guy who's worked out fairly well in the majors, not great or anything but he's been a fairly underappreciated pitcher I think

  13. WWWWOWOWOOOOWOWOWOOOWWWWWWW So you think Hideo Nomo MUDDLED through 11 more MLB seasons???? His sophomore campaign he posted a 3.19 ERA 1.16 WHIP 16 Wins. Oh yeah and 234 Ks! His 3rd season he had 14 Ws and 233Ks! 2001 13 Ws and 220 Ks! 2002 16 Ws and 193 Ks! 2003 16 Ws and 177 Ks! You call that muddling??? If Yu Darvish had as many Ws and Ks you Yankee fans would be ready to declare him HOF worthy. But then again, I have to remember this is a Yankee fan posting this article in a total unbiased manner

  14. Heh, I love that anytime someone disagrees with my assessment of a player on another team they automatically ascribe it to Yankee bias. Sean, my friend, if you actually ever read this blog consistently you'd discover that we're about the furthest thing from Yankee homers there are, and try to be as impartial as possible when looking at any baseball player, regardless of what team they're on. But I digress.

    Now, it's certainly possible I gave Nomo shorter shrift than I'd intended. I was primarily looking at his ERA relative to the league (ERA+), although given your citation of Wins as a useful statistic you probably have no idea what ERA+ is.

    While Nomo certainly posted his share of impressive above-average K/9 rates for much of his career (no season through his first nine years in the league below 8.2 until 2002,and even that year it was 7.9), outside of 1995, 1996 and 2003 he was never dominant. He has more seasons with a below-league average ERA+ (7) than he does above (%) and for his career he ended up at a 98 ERA+. Granted, those last three seasons of his career helped bring him below that level, but as I said, aside from those three stellar seasons, he was mostly a slightly above-league league pitcher — not that there's anything wrong with that, but given the way he burst onto the scene in 1995 I think people were probably expecting sustained greatness. He never ever posted a year worth more than 3.0 bWAR outside of those three dominant seasons.

    I'm willing to concede that "muddled: is perhaps a bit harsh, but I don't think it's terribly off-base, either.

    Anon @4:15am: That's a good catch; I did forget Kuroda, and he's been a very nice addition to the Dodger rotation. There had been some rumbling early in the offseason about whether the Yankees should've taken a look at him, and I wouldn't have complained had they ended up acquiring him.

  15. Great points, Lar.

    Here's one more thing too regarding Nomo. Over the course of his career he averaged a 1.354 WHIP which is not very ideal. During his time with in the AL, it was a 1.499 which is boarder line crappy.

    You can add that to his career 4.1 BB/9 rate. But those 14 wins per year sure sound enticing…

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