Prospect A-Z returned to the Rays’ shortstop position yesterday with a look at former first overall pick Tim Beckham. He isn’t meeting the expectations of a former first overall pick, but he was never a can’t miss talent that people associate with a first overall pick anyway. His consistent performance from level to level is admirable, but right now it appears his ceiling is that of a utility player or fringe starter. Not every first overall pick works out, but he’s still young and could develop. Today we’ll cover the player the Rangers paid a lot of money to talk to, Yu Darvish.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers* (2011: NPB Nippon Ham)
Yu Darvish was known to hardcore baseball fans prior to 2009, but his real international coming out party may have been the 2009 World Baseball Classic. For anyone in the U.S. that was up very early in the morning on March 5th, 2009, they were treated to a Darvish start that was impressive. He struck three out in four innings against China, and he finished the tournament with 20 strikeouts in 13 innings, a 2.08 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in Japan’s second WBC Championship.
For the next three years, fans in America wondered when Darvish would come to the majors and face the ultimate challenge of major league hitters. They would have to keep waiting several years though. After the 2010 season, it was rumored that he was signing by the Diamondbacks, but that didn’t make sense on any level. They’re a small market team coming off a bad year, and after all the buildup leading up to Daisuke Matsuzaka being posted and signed, there’s no way Darvish would just fly under the radar. It of course proved to be untrue, and he returned to Japan for one more season.
Conventional wisdom would indicate that the Yankees or Red Sox would win the bidding. Not only are they the biggest markets in the sport, but they both desperately need need some starting pitching. They also have experience using the posting system and getting players from Japan outside of the posting system as well. However, there are a couple new teams asserting themselves for international players, and it wouldn’t be New York or Boston. The Yankees put in what was described as a modest bid, but the Red Sox weren’t interested at all. For much of the blind bid period, Toronto was the rumored front runner, but in the end their ownership wasn’t willing to pay the expensive posting fee it would take. Two seasons after a new ownership group took over and acquiring Cliff Lee at the trade deadline and one season after making a huge free agent splash in Adrian Beltre and splurging in the international amateur market, it was the Rangers who put in the winning bid north of 50 million.
Texas has done a 180 as a franchise in recent years. They were hardly ever in contention, fans weren’t interested, and it wasn’t a great place to play, especially for pitchers. Under a new braintrust, the reputation began changing. They built a deep, largely homegrown pitching staff, and they reached the World Series in consecutive years. Also in consecutive years, the team lost lefties Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson in free agency and desperately needed a top of the rotation starter. Enter Yu Darvish.
There has been much hand wringing taking place on the internet during the entire process? “Why pay 50 million for an unproven player?” “All pitchers from Japan fail!” There’s certainly something to be said for the culture changes players have to go through, but that doesn’t just apply to players from Japan. Prospects from Latin America have to make the same adjustments too. Darvish won’t fail because Matsuzaka or Igawa failed. If he does, it will be on his own merits. Matt Harvey won’t fail because Andrew Miller did. They share nothing in common aside from previously pitching at North Carolina.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Darvish and Matsuzaka are their sizes. Matsuzaka is listed at 6’0 and 185 pounds which is a much smaller frame than most ML starters. In Japan, he was known for his heavy workloads and throwing a ton of pitches not just in games, but in his off days as well. His work ethic is to be commended and something I’ll speak about shortly. Darvish is a 6’5, 220 pound workhorse. That’s a pretty big pitcher even for ML standards and should be able to handle the stress put on his arm over the course of a season. Their usage in Japan is also different. Although Darvish had more innings pitched from ages 18-24, he had a gradual buildup to a career high 237 IP in 2011. Matsuzaka actually made more starts between those ages despite missing nearly half the season in 2002 with an injury. He pitched 347.2 professional innings before turning 20, something that would never happen here.
That said, I think part of the problems Matsuzaka experienced with Boston were related to changes in his off day regimens. Bobby Valentine has mentioned this on broadcasts before. The Red Sox changed some of his throwing programs to conform to MLB practices. If a player is having success with what he’s doing, even if it seems like he’s throwing too much, the player knows his body best and what helps him prepare. The Rangers have had no problems adapting new and different techniques to improve pitcher development, so they could take a hands off approach with Darvish if he has his own programs.
It’s also important to acknowledge that Darvish may simply be better than Matsuzaka. His career WHIP in Japan is .98 while Matsuzaka only had one season below 1.00. Darvish’s career ERA is under 2.00, and Matsuzaka wasn’t under 2.00 for a single season. He has a harder fastball, a great breaking ball and an above average cutter that’ll help him retire lefties. He has even more secondary pitches, but he may need to scrap them when facing ML hitters and just go with his best pitches.
Darvish has great talent and will have a great chance to succeed for a winning organization that knows how to handle their players. They’re doing everything they can to win, and it’s a huge risk to spend the money the Rangers are to negotiate with Darvish and then sign him. One more thing that needs to be said: Matsuzaka was really good in his first two seasons with the Red Sox. He had a 3.72 ERA, significantly above average considering he pitched home games at Fenway Park. His WHIP was 1.32, and he had 355 strikeouts in 372.1 innings. Obviously things went south, but he absolutely wasn’t a total bust.
Come back tomorrow for letter V in Prospect A-Z. Will it be a Cubs infielder that swings at every pitch, a Phillies catcher that swings at every pitch or a Braves pitcher that induces a lot of swings and misses?