The Texas Rangers invested heavily in the future of Yu Darvish when they followed up a $51.7 million posting fee (just for the rights to negotiate a contract in the first place) with a six-year, $60 million deal to obtain the latest off-season’s top international pitching commodity. As was widely reported at the time, the combined financial commitment of nearly $112 million for the 25-year-old Japanese hurler easily outpaced the $103 million bid on Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006. In short, the Rangers went all in on Darvish, a somewhat risky proposition given the inconsistent results of past imports from Japan. For every Ichiro Suzuki, there have been a long list of disappointments, including forgettable names such as Kazuo Matsui, Kei Igawa, Hideki Irabu, and so far, the aforementioned Matsuzaka.
I’m certainly not intending to pick on Matsuzaka, who was actually quite solid in his rookie season, in which he was worth nearly 4 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. The problem is, things only got worse for him from that point, despite the fact that it should be a safe bet for a 26-year-old coming off a good season to, you know, keep improving. It didn’t happen, obviously, as Matsuzaka instead became increasingly plagued with injuries, control problems, and a general inability to retire major league hitters.
The Rangers are hoping a different career awaits Darvish, but the early results (and it is still very early, which is a caveat that must always be used in any attempt to mine through statistical data) indicate that he’s going to be just like Matsuzaka in the sense that he: 1) has overpowering stuff hitters struggle to connect with, and 2) walks everyone. This is going to sound like something of a generalization, but haven’t we seen this trend in, oh, every pitcher imported from Japan? Don’t make me provide a list; I’ve got a word count to manage here. There are exceptions, obviously, but it’s hardly groundbreaking to suggest Darvish fits the bill of a prototypical Japanese pitcher very well.
This is not an especially good sign for Texas. At this point, I’m not asserting the contract was a dreadful mistake, especially considering we’re only nine starts into the career of the player being analyzed here. The results are in through the first 56 innings, however, so it’s not like we’re working with nothing. Look, Darvish throws hard; his average fastball velocity clocks in at a robust 92.8 MPH so far this season, which puts him in the top 20 among all MLB starters. As mentioned before, he’s generating more than his fair share of swings and misses (10.13 K/9, a rate only three qualifying starters in baseball can top so far), and his breaking pitches are undeniably devastating; in fact, there is no denying the stuff of Yu Darvish at all. With a walk rate of 5.14 batters per nine innings pitched, however, he’s still putting too many opposing hitters on base.
So far, Darvish has been lucky. He’s been stranding runners on base at a 78.8% clip, and the average rate is typically between 70-72% historically. That’s why his ERA stands at a pleasant 3.05 through these first nine starts instead of the more pedestrian 3.70 mark that appears next to his xFIP, a fielding independent stat that attempts to normalize some of his good fortune. The bottom line is that very few pitchers can be successful over the long haul with a walk rate as high as the one Darvish is currently posting, and he has shown no improvement in that department during the second month of the season. It could be that his stuff is so nasty that he will make a career of getting out of his self-created jams. It could be that he will learn to rein in his control problems as he becomes more experienced, turning into a true ace with no real weakness aside from a propensity to strike various feminine poses when in front of a camera lens.
We also need to be prepared for the very real possibility, however, that Darvish never puts it together and ends up being just another wild-but-talented pitcher with plus stuff and no command. It’s unfair to draw too many parallels between Darvish and Matsuzaka; the latter has dealt with repeated injuries in addition to his control issues, and health may never be a concern for the former. I don’t mean to suggest that these two are necessarily connected in any way, but there are similarities that cannot be completely ignored nonetheless. For the record, Matsuzaka’s control was far superior to that of Darvish’s when comparing their rookie seasons at this point. You can’t blame Texas for gambling on the upside here, but the early results don’t indicate the franchise has an ace in the making, one who they’ll be paying roughly $18 million a season to (counting posting fees) through the 2017 season.