Sometime today the posting fee for Yu Darvish may leak — even though the Nippon Ham Fighters have until Tuesday to publicly accept the winning bid. The number may not be as high as the $51.1 million that it took to get Daisuke Matsuzaka, and yet it still might cause some eyebrows to rise. At the same time, Darvish is a 25-year-old pitcher available for money alone. How much would a comparable pitcher garner in America if he was a free agent?
Let’s try to find a comp.
Darvish is 25. He had 276 strikeouts in 232 innings last year in Japan, for a 10.7 K/9. He walked fewer than one and a half batters per nine, and he had a 57% groundball rate to boot. His fastball, two sliders and a cutter are his best pitches. Despite all of this, we have to admit that there is some doubt about his future, too.
Here is the pool of 25-year-old major league pitchers that pitched 150+ innings last season, with sortable headers for your pleasure:
Since Darvish has a 94 MPH fastball right now, let’s cut those last four pitchers from the list. He’s not likely to lose that much velocity. The first thing that pops out from Gio Gonzalez’ line is of course the walks. We’d like to count him out just for those, given Darvish’s control, but Matsuzaka still looms large. Then again, Darvish had a 2.56 career BB/9 in Japan, and Matsuzaka a 2.98 BB/9. You know what, let’s drop Gio because he’s a lefty. Oops, there go Harrison and Price.
Before we drop anyone for groundball rate, we should note that the Japanese league is much more ground-ball heavy as a league. While the average ground-ball rate here in the MLB is 44%, in Japan it’s 47.9%. So Darvish’s groundball rate was 19% better than league average, or the same as a 52% ground-ball rate in the major leagues. Except it wasn’t the major leagues. In comparison, Jordan Zimmermann’s 46% ground-ball rate in the Eastern League in 2008 was 45% better than league average according to one source. Let’s leave Zimmermann in the pool.
We are left with four pitchers: Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Felix Hernandez and Yovani Gallardo. If these pitchers were on the open market, it would make for quite the bonanza. What kind of free agent contracts would they demand?
Let’s call Cueto the floor, Zimmermann the middle, and King Felix the ceiling, shall we? And while we are making assumptions, let’s go with the idea that pitchers peak at age 27 through 29, and make some fake aging curves for our two pitchers. This is all very rough, but it might give us a little bit of an idea about Darvish comps.
|12-16 WAR Total||31||20.5||18.5|
The second-best bid for Matsuzaka was $40 million back in 2007. If we assign that number to Darvish, we’re half-way to a full number. Darvish made approximately $6.5 million in Japan last year, and could make as much as $8 million in arbitration next year. He’ll need a short-term raise to come to America. Matsuzaka signed a six-year, $52 million contract four years ago. Add in some inflation and that number grows past $60 million. Perhaps the winning team wants to take on less risk and goes with a five-year contract just short of Daisuke’s contract number.
It’s dirty math, and full of conjecture, but it’s zeroing in on something just under a $100 million total — posting fee and five year contract included.
And before you think that’s too much for Yu Darvish, note that the floor, represented by Cueto, is not too far from $100 million himself. Even if you start taking away WAR because you believe pitchers peak earlier, there’s room for risk on that table. And Darvish has plenty of upside, so don’t penalize the comps too much.
We can’t compare Darvish to a minor league prospect right now, because there aren’t any prospects of his caliber that are 25 and in the minor leagues. But four years ago, Darvish was a 21-year-old with a 9+ K/9 and 200 innings in a league better than Triple-A. 21-year-old Shelby Miller is coming off a Double-A year with the same kind of strikeout punch and worse control. He’s a top-five prospect on most lists. How much would the Rangers pay to own him?
The fact remains that young pitchers are worth a lot of money to their teams. Zimmermann — a fastball/slider pitcher with at least two more pitches and velocity in hand, like Darvish — could easily be worth about nine figures to his team over the next five years. And Zimmermann is less than proven himself, with only 283.2 innings of proof spread over three years with a Tommy John surgery mixed in. And you have to go back to High-A ball to find a double-digit strikeout rate for him, too.
All that said, the young Nationals pitcher is 25. How much would you pay for Jordan Zimmerann, if all it took was cash?
Thanks to Patrick Newman for finding the Japanese league rates.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.