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.