Is Yu Darvish Worth It?

Yu Darvish, who was already the most hyped Japanese pitcher to ever catch the wandering eye of the major leagues, officially became the most expensive Japanese pitcher in major league history Wednesday. The Texas Rangers, who had already committed $51.7 million to the Nippon Ham Fighters for the privilege of signing their star right-hander, finalized a six-year, $60 million contract with Darvish as the minutes ticked down on the negotiating deadline.

The contract includes up to $10 million in incentives and may allow Darvish to opt out of the contract a year early if he meets certain milestones. But as a bare minimum, the Rangers are committed to an outlay of nearly $112 million over the next six years — nearly half of that due as a lump sum immediately — to a pitcher who has never pitched in the majors. The Rangers’ previous ace, C.J. Wilson, who (pitching in the hitters’ paradise that is Rangers Ballpark in Arlington) averaged 214 innings and a 3.14 ERA the last two seasons, defected to the rival Los Angeles Angels this winter. Wilson signed for five years and $77.5 million — less than 70 percent the guaranteed money Darvish will cost Texas to replace him.

The most expensive Japanese pitcher in major league history is also (if the scouts are to be believed) the best Japanese pitcher in major league history. The last time the previous sentence was written, the pitcher’s name was Daisuke Matsuzaka, and that sentence turned out to be half-true. Matsuzaka cost the Red Sox nine figures to sign — a posting fee of $51.1 million to the Seibu Lions, and $52 million to the pitcher — and for two seasons, he looked like he might be worth the money. But over the past three years, Dice-K was rarely healthy and almost never effective, averaging 83 innings a season with an ERA over 5. He blew out his elbow last June and will likely miss most, if not all, of the 2012 season. The Red Sox will be paying him $10 million anyway.

Darvish now inherits Matsuzaka’s mantle as the majors’ most costly Japanese import. But while Matsuzaka didn’t come close to duplicating the success of Hideo Nomo, or even unheralded hurlers like Tomo Ohka, there are many reasons to think the Yu Darvish Experiment will be more successful.

For one thing, Darvish was simply a better pitcher in Japan than Matsuzaka was. Frankly, he might be better than any other pitcher in Japanese history. Consider what he did last season: In 28 starts, he threw 232 innings (nearly 8.3 innings per start), struck out 276 batters, walked just 36, surrendered 156 hits, and allowed just five home runs all season. His ERA was 1.44. His numbers look like they were ripped out of the Christy Mathewson Catalog, not a stat line from a 21st-century pitcher.

The Japanese Leagues’ decision to switch to a different baseball before the 2011 season helped Darvish. It meant a move to a ball that better conformed to international specifications, but was less bouncy. Offensive numbers nose-dived throughout Japan; Darvish’s 1.44 ERA didn’t even lead his league. But from 2007 to 2010, Darvish’s ERAs read 1.82, 1.88, 1.73, and 1.78 — numbers that would make Sandy Koufax jealous. Darvish has been too good for Japanese baseball since he was 20 years old.

By comparison, Matsuzaka’s lowest ERA in Japan was 2.13. The worst season Darvish has had in the last five years was better than Matsuzaka’s best season.

Darvish has advantages in other areas. At 25, he’s a year younger than Matsuzaka was when Dice-K came to America. He’s a much more imposing physical figure; while Matsuzaka is listed at 6-foot, Darvish stands 6-foot-5. Darvish’s repertoire is better, and better fits an American style of play. While Matsuzaka had above-average stuff even by American standards, his style — like a lot of Japanese pitchers — was to nibble on the mound, aiming for the edges of the plate, and favoring his off-speed pitches. Even when Matsuzaka was effective, he was effectively wild — in 2008, his best season, he actually led the AL in walks allowed.

By contrast, Darvish pitches off his fastball, which he can dial into the mid-90s, and features an excellent cutter along with quality breaking stuff. He may have to ditch some of his extraneous pitches, like a looping slow curveball with which he likes to trick hitters, but he should have little difficulty adjusting to the American game.

Darvish accepts the mantle as the Rangers’ no. 1 starter, and his signing represents not only a coup for Texas, but for major league baseball. Darvish is the biggest baseball star in Japan, and one of the nation’s biggest celebrities, period; his Q ratings are more comparable to the people who grace the cover of Us Weekly than a mere athletic superstar. Darvish’s mixed heritage — his mother is Japanese, but his father is Iranian, and his parents met in Florida — makes him a perfect exhibit of the ever-increasing globalization of the game.

But for everything that Darvish has going for him, the commitment the Rangers have made is a risky one. Pitchers get hurt at a much higher frequency than position players, and six years is a long time to bet that he’ll stay healthy. The culture of Japanese baseball does not help; teams do not adhere to pitch counts with anywhere near the strictness that they do in America, which is how Darvish was allowed to throw more than eight innings a start in the first place. Darvish hasn’t been worked nearly as hard as Matsuzaka was — he famously threw 250 pitches in a game during Japan’s fabled Koshien high school tournament — but his workload at such a young age is still a red flag.

By adding Darvish, the Rangers have made it clear that they are not going to relinquish their hold over the AL West without a fight, even after the Angels added Wilson and Albert Pujols. The escalating arms race in the AL West raises the specter that, for the first time since 2006, the AL wild-card team might not come out of the AL East. (This assumes there will continue to be only one wild-card team for 2012, something that still hasn’t been confirmed. No rush, guys. It’s not like knowing a tiny detail like how many teams make the playoffs is going to affect how teams approach their offseasons.) While the Orioles are the only uncompetitive team in the East, both the Mariners and A’s have essentially thrown in the towel for 2012, which helps Texas and Los Angeles take advantage of the unbalanced schedule to beat up on their hapless brethren in the division.

In the long term, though, for the Rangers to get a solid return on their investment, they’ll need Darvish to stay healthy and effective for the entirety of the contract. He certainly has both the skills and pedigree needed to be an ace starter in the major leagues. For the money the Rangers have spent on him, he better be.

Filed Under: Texas Rangers

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

Archive @ jazayerli