Yu Darvish The Next Fernando Valenzuela?

It’s a little bit early, but if Yu Darvish keeps up his pitching pace there will be people lining up to watch him throw wherever the Texas Rangers travel. The import from Japan is very much looking like the real deal following the off-season frenzy to gain negotiating rights to the righty and to sign him.

A month into the 2012 season Darvish is 4-0, which is a pretty nice pace multiplied by six, isn’t it? A 24-0 season would probably win Darvish rookie of the year, yah think?

OK, so we know 24-0 is not going to happen unless he turns out to be Sidd Finch in the flesh. But Darvish is no April Fool’s joke. He is not throwing the 168 mph the fictional Finch (wink, wink) hit on the radar gun, but he is mixing so many pitches together that batters can’t keep up. The other day the Rangers and Darvish bested Toronto, 4-1. The Blue Jays got all of one run on four hits in seven innings off of Darvish.

Texas Rangers Yu Darvish from Japan is already gaining a following after his 4-0 start. Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Off to a 4-0 start with a 2.18 earned run average is a nice accomplishment for a rookie, but even Darvish is trying to keep a lid on expectations and celebrations. “I’m very aware all of these hitters are seeing me for the first time,” Darvish said. “It’s only April.”

Well, now it’s May and he is still undefeated. Let’s see what the next four starts bring.

The year was 1981, but in that more innocent time, Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Fernando Valenzuela set the nation on fire with his off-the-charts start to his career. Just like Darvish, he came from a foreign country. Just like Darvish, he was blowing hitters away with more than a fast fastball. Just like Darvish his first language was not English and he spoke to reporters through an interpreter.

Valenzuela was from Mexico, had a delivery where he tilted his head back and looked skyward instead of at the plate, confused hitters with a screwball, and won his first eight decisions for the Dodgers. If you know your baseball history you may recall a little phenomenon called “Fernandomania,” that followed, a nationwide frenzy of delirium rooting for the guy. Although that season was cut short by a labor stoppage, Valenzuela was the National League rookie of the year and the Cy Young Award winner. Nicknamed “El Toro,” the bull, Valenzeula had a very solid career. He won 173 games, pitched a no-hitter, and struck out more than 2,000 men. At 51 he is a Spanish-language broadcaster for the Dodgers.

It took $56 million for the Rangers to sign Darvish to a six-year contract after winning a $50-million-plus bidding war for his negotiating rights. Valenzuela was an unknown from a small, out-of-the-way town when the Dodgers found him. Not so with Darvish, who is 25 with seven seasons in Japanese baseball in the bank. He had already put together three pretty special seasons in the Japan League with high win and strikeout totals and low earned run averages (five seasons under 2.00). As always, there was some risk in trying to determine if excellence elsewhere translates to excellence in the majors.

In Darvish’s case, so far it has. Maybe it will in the long run, too. It will take some time, however, to determine if Darvish is the best-ever signee from Japan. Right now Ichiro Suzuki owns the title and anyone who outdoes him can write a ticket to the Hall of Fame.

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