Ah, Yu Darvish. I first wrote about Darvish at length last January at Yankeeist, in a piece that still appears on the first page of Darvish’s Google results. Here’s a snippet from that post:
“It’s hard not to like what (Darvish) has 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.”
Those staggering numbers somehow became even more ridiculous this past season. To wit, here is an updated table of Darvish’s season-by-season and career numbers through the end of 2011, courtesy of npb.or.jp:
Somewhat improbably, Darvish managed to shrink his career ERA to 1.99 from an already minuscule 2.12 following the culmination of the 2010 season, on the strength of a career-best 1.44 ERA in a career-high 232 innings.
As a point of comparison, previous big-name Japanese import Hideo Nomo had a 3.15 career ERA in Japan before coming over to the U.S. (and wound up with a 4.24 career MLB ERA); Hideki Irabu compiled a 3.55 ERA over the 11 seasons he spent playing in Japan (and put up a 5.15 career mark in MLB); and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a 2.95 ERA in eight Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) seasons (and has a 4.25 career ERA in five MLB seasons). While all of these pitchers arrived stateside with boatloads of hype, it’s not a stretch to say that Darvish could be the best Japanese pitching import ever assuming whichever team puts up the excessive posting fee and works out an agreeable deal with the righty. Of course, all of that hype could go down the toilet once he starts playing American professional baseball, but even if his skills only translated as more of a number-two type, he’d still likely be worth the investment depending on which team lands him.
For what it’s worth (and it may not be much, depending on what kind of faith you place in the various projection systems), the Hardball Times’ Oliver system loves Darvish even more than it did last winter, when it projected WARs of 6.4, 6.3, 6.4, 6.4, 6.3 and 6.3, respectively, for Darvish’s 2011-2016 Major League Equivalent forecast. Oliver’s updated projections now call for Darvish to inexplicably be the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, and by a rather wide margin at that, with projected WARs of 7.3, 7.3, 7.3, 7.2, 7.1 and 7.0 for his 2012-2017 seasons.
That’s an average WAR of 7.2(!) over his first six seasons(!!) in MLB. Oliver has Roy Halladay averaging 5.5 WAR over his next six seasons; Justin Verlander 5.9; Clayton Kershaw 5.9; and CC Sabathia just 3.7. Granted, Darvish is younger than all of these pitchers save Kershaw, though I’m sure even Oliver’s creator would tell you that these numbers are an extreme, beyond-best-case scenario for Darvish, and that the MLEs for Japanese pitchers are far from perfect. Still, it’s tough not to get somewhat excited about the righty’s potential.
To add more fuel to the speculative fire, RLYW’s SG crunched some numbers to see how Darvish’s recent performances might translate at the MLB level and the results are fairly compelling: 195 innings of 3.31 ERA, 3.78 FIP ball.
While I’m sure SG would warn that any NPB-MLB translations need to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s still food for thought. That 3.31 ERA may not look like anything special when compared to what Darvish has done in Japan, but that’s nothing to sneeze at in MLB, and would have been the 14th-best mark in the American League this past season, not to mention second-best among the members of the 2011 Yankee rotation.
However, despite all of the eye-popping numbers, the gigantic wild card at the end of the day is that no one really knows how Darvish will perform at the MLB level. It’s guaranteed that he won’t be posting sub-2.00 ERAs, since not even the best pitchers in baseball can do that. Whichever team does end up with Darvish will be banking that the righty will be good for a roughly 3.00-3.50 ERA for ideally every year of his contract, and as we’ve seen with past Japanese imports, this level of performance is far from a sure thing.
Another possible concern for Darvish’s potential U.S. employer is that Japanese hurlers only start once a week, and anecdotally it seems like the every-five-days schedule MLB teams employ has absorbed some of the blame for Matsuzaka’s failures. I asked the Japan-based Yankee Source about this last month on Twitter, and he had the following to say with regards to Darvish and Wilson, and whether Darvish would have any issues with pitching every five days: “I prefer Darvish — younger, a serious arsenal of pitches with plus command, better mechanics, and a bulldog attitude. He is meticulous in his preparation before games so I don’t see (starting every five days) as a big issue. What’s impressive about Darvish is that he can correct his mechanical flaws on his own like CC. He knows his mistakes.”
As far as cost goes, it’s probably not out of the question that the posting fee reaches or even exceeds the $51 million paid by the Red Sox in late 2006 for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka, despite Dice-K’s less-than-blockbuster MLB career. The Mets and Yankees reportedly bid $39 million and $33 million, respectively, for Matsuzaka, while the Yankees paid a $26 million posting fee for the ridiculously inferior Kei Igawa. Any contract for Darvish would likely have to be at least six years to match Dice-K’s deal, and higher than Matsuzaka’s $8.6 million annual salary. Even if you conservatively project Darvish to be something like a 3-win pitcher, you’re probably talking a minimum annual salary of around $12 million a year. All told, between a roughly $50 million posting fee — though as many have noted, the posting fee helpfully doesn’t count against the luxury tax — and salary, we’re probably talking a total outlay of somewhere in the neighborhood of $120-$130 million for Darvish.
It seems like the expectation for C.J. Wilson is that he’d be lucky to get an A.J. Burnett/John Lackey deal, so if Wilson can indeed be had for five years and roughly $83 million, then you’re almost certainly looking at less of an investment when it comes to pursuing the lefthander. But the six-year age difference favors Darvish, as does the fact that the signing team will end up only having to surrender money and no draft pick for the righty.
If any team can pony up the cash it’ll take to get Darvish while also possibly having to absorb a massive financial hit in the event Darvish was a complete bust, the Yankees certainly could. Boston also could, although they may be less inclined to go all-in on yet another Japanese pitcher with no MLB track record.
So after spilling a ton of virtual ink on the relative pros and cons of Wilson or Darvish, you’re probably wondering who I’d prefer. Wilson’s appealing given that he’s actually done it here and done it well, while Darvish is a rather large question mark with what could be an enormous upside. I am also in favor of adding a lefty to the Yankee rotation whenever possible, and slotting the slower-throwing Wilson in behind the gas-throwing Sabathia would likely help keep teams off-balance. On the flip side, if you’re as talented as Darvish could in theory be, then it doesn’t really matter what hand you throw with.
Unfortunately I’m going to have to give a bit of a cop-out answer in that ultimately I’d really be fine with the Yankees signing either pitcher. I don’t feel overwhelmingly strongly in favor of or against either hurler, and I think either would represent a significant upgrade to the 2012 Yankee rotation. Of course, the Yankees could also surprise the heck out of everybody and sign both players. I don’t know of anyone who actually expects something like that to happen, but when it comes to our beloved Bombers and the Hot Stove, you know what they say about baseball, Suzyn.
I also don’t think the Yankees have to sign one of the two one way or another. Even if the current depth chart — Sabathia-Ivan Nova-A.J. Burnett-Phil Hughes-? (and you could also put question marks in place of Burnett’s and Hughes’ names) — doesn’t exactly look incredible on paper, the team still has enough in-house options to fight over the back end of the rotation. Brian Cashman could also probably find another Freddy Garcia/Bartolo Colon-type on the tertiary market if need be in January to patch the rotation for one more year, before going nuts next offseason and/or keeping seats warm for Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos.