This is a guest post from David P. over at Yankees Source, who can be reached at @yankeesource on Twitter. He is a scout for an international scouting agency that works with a few MLB clubs, including the Yankees. He spends a few months out of the year in Japan and has been following Yu Darvish since he was 16. I asked him for some thoughts on Darvish and how he compares to previous Japanese prospects who have made the leap to MLB, and he kindly obliged with a very informative post.
At this point we are all familiar with the failures of major Japanese pitchers who make the transition to the MLB. That’s one of the biggest fears for baseball fans this year, the thought of signing Japanese phenom Yu Darvish to a multi-million-dollar deal only to have it end up as a failure. There were big signings from Japan that turned into multi-million-dollar busts that remain etched in our minds. Hideki Irabu is probably the first big name bust if you recall the commercials about his 99MPH fastball and all the other hype before he ever threw a Major League pitch. Then there were others like Daisuke Matsuzaka, the one with the mythical gyroball, and Kei Igawa, who were two of the more recent failures that cost millions to both the Red Sox and the Yankees. But is it fair to label each Japanese pitcher an automatic bust?
I’ve been around the NPB for years and the first thing I could tell you is that it isn’t a league that is equal to the MLB in terms of talent. The rosters are pretty thin for the most part and you know that the talent level is weak when the Central League home run leader is former Seattle Mariner Wladimir Balentien with 31 home runs. However, wouldn’t it be much better to evaluate players if you actually viewed the NPB as an AAA+ league? The level of talent in the NPB is closer to AAA than MLB and the few exceptions that play in the NPB who do dominate can then be looked at as legit candidates to be on a Major League roster.
Hideki Matsui dominated the NPB before coming to the Yankees. He launched 50 home runs in his last year with the Yomiuri Giants while hitting .334 and driving in 107 RBIs. In his first season with the Yankees, Matsui hit just 16 home runs but had 106 RBIs and hit .287. He was a very steady performer with the Yankees for seven years and while he wasn’t the same power hitter that he was in Japan, he still hit 20 or more home runs in four of his seven seasons with the Yankees. Ichiro was another NPB stud who hit .387 with the Orix Blue Wave in his last year in Japan. He wasn’t a power hitter in Japan but again it was pretty clear that he didn’t belong in that league. Ichiro hit .350 in his first season with the Mariners and won the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP award in the same year.
Like any prospect there is also a chance that they just might not pan out. One such example is former New York Met infielder Kazuo Matsui. In 2002 with the Seibu Lions, Matsui hit .332 with 36 home runs and 87 RBIs. The Mets signed him at age 27 and in 2004 he hit a paltry .272 with 7 home runs and 44 RBIs, and in 2005, just .255 with 3 homers in 267 ABs. He was nowhere near his Japanese numbers and the Mets traded him to the Colorado Rockies after two seasons with the team.
Moving on to pitching and looking past the busts in Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, other Japanese pitchers have had decent success in the majors. Hisanori Takahashi, Koji Uehara, Yoshinori Tateyama, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda, and Hideki Okajima have had good to great success in the MLB. In the past there were many Japanese pitchers who couldn’t adjust, but the newer crop of Japanese pitchers have looked much better. I know we all look at Daisuke Matsuzaka as a bust, mainly because it’s impossible to live up to the 100-million-dollar-plus price tag around his neck, but he also had success early in his Red Sox career. In his last season with the Seibu Lions, Dice-K went 17-5 with a 2.13 ERA. As much as he dominated the NPB, there were definite questions about his durability before coming over. His durability eventually turned his Red Sox career into a failure because his health kept him off the mound after a terrific 2008 season, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA with the Red Sox.
Is it fair to compare Yu Darvish to Dice-K? Not at all. Yu Darvish is just 24 years old and has thrown at least 200 innings in four of his last five seasons. Comparatively, Dice-K only had two seasons in Japan where he threw 200 or more innings, once in 2000 and then five years later in 2005 (age 25). Darvish’s consistency in innings also gives you some hope that he is durable enough to adjust to MLB. Dice-K never had a sub-2.00 ERA in the NPB while Darvish has posted five consecutive years of ERAs below 2.00 at a younger age as well. Of course there will be those who say that all these innings is a reason to be wary of his arm and how it will hold up but why aren’t we equally worried about Felix Hernandez who at 25 has thrown four consecutive seasons of 200 or more innings?
All of the statistical data in the world still cannot project how a pitcher may pitch in the majors. We know that Darvish isn’t going to pitch to sub-2 ERAs in the AL East where pitchers like C.C. Sabathia, Jon Lester, and other aces struggle to keep their ERAs under 3. Expecting something much less than his NPB statistics will at least give you some understanding on how he will translate. Furthermore, there are numerous external factors that can affect Japanese pitchers’ performances once they arrive. Some of these pitchers simply cannot adjust to the secluded lifestyle that they carry once they arrive here. Many of them can’t adjust to the tougher hitters, and the changes in travel, diet, communication, etc., can all turn a stud into a dud. It’s not easy, and as someone who travels a lot I can tell you that it’s ridiculously difficult to adjust.
Darvish could be susceptible to all these things; there were rumors of him being spotted at the red light district in Japan and his issues with his wife have also been well-scrutinized by the Japanese press too, but from what I’ve seen he looks like a very mature individual who is capable of handling New York City. Strictly on an analysis of talent level, Darvish looks every bit as legit as a Stephen Strasburg or a Matt Moore.
It’s also important to note that Darvish isn’t the same pitcher he was in 2008 — back then his fastball was a fringe Major League pitch and his mechanics were raw. He still had the ability to dominate the NPB scene but it was pretty clear that he needed something more if he was to attempt to bring that level of dominance to the Major League Baseball arena. Darvish bulked up, and the added weight improved his fastball from 92-94 to 94-97mph, which is where he sits in 2011. His added bulk this year also suggests that he is preparing for a move to the Majors and that’s why most of us are convinced that Nippon Ham will post him this season. The bulkiness is another reason why I project his durability to be better than others would suggest. If he was a tall, lanky pitcher who threw 94-97mph there would be a lot more uncertainty in his arm holding up than now.
Furthermore, Darvish has a keen knowledge of his mechanics that other 20-25-year-olds would have a tough time understanding. I remember one scout saying “He’s his own pitching coach” during a bullpen in spring training and I can vouch for that. I recall a game two years ago where he lost his arm slot in the first inning and came off the mound visibly frustrated, holding his arm up to suggest that he lost his arm slot. He would come out and shut the opposing team down for the rest of the game and it was clear he made the necessary adjustment. His balance to home plate is impeccable and he repeats his motion extremely well because he knows his entire pitching motion like the back of his hand. Dice-K doesn’t repeat his motion and that’s why you never see him on the mound anymore.
With Darvish you are getting a control/power pitcher who can take you deep into games and save your bullpen. He also brings the fire and desire to win and dominate every game he pitches. He’s already accustomed to celebrity status in Japan and it won’t be any different if he joined the New York Yankees. Whether or not his stuff will translate remains to be seen but he is much better than any talent that has ever come from Japan because of his age and the number of above average pitches he can throw. At age 24, you have to remember to look at Darvish as a very expensive prospect rather than a guy who is guaranteed to be a lockdown ace. That’s where two separate million-dollar questions pop up: do you take a risk on signing a 24-year-old AAA+ level prospect who looks legit? And is it worth spending millions knowing you will have to have a consistently great starter from year one to the last year of his contract to justify the outlay, something that rarely comes to fruition? These are only questions that the guys with the fat wallets, namely Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, can answer.
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