With a total commitment of around $111 million, Yu Darvish certainly didn’t come cheap for the Texas Rangers. While the team may expect to recoup some of that investment through generating revenues associated with having him on the team, it’s not very easy to plan a trip over from Japan to watch a starting pitcher, so we should be careful projecting large attendance gains based on having Darvish on the roster. And, while some may argue that the $51 million posting fee was a separate expense than player payroll, it’s still money the organization no longer will have access to that was a direct cost of having Darvish on the roster. Regardless of how the Rangers account for it in their ledger, it’s part of his expense, and needs to be considered when evaluating just how well Darvish needs to pitch in order to justify the Rangers decision.
So, how good does he need to be in order to accumulate approximately $110 million of value over the next six years? At $5 million per win with five percent annual inflation, the Rangers would be paying for +19.7 WAR during the life of the contract. If you think inflation’s going to be a little less than that, then you’ll come in around +21 WAR, a little more and you’ll be closer to +18 WAR. Most reasonable assumptions in terms of the current and expected future market for wins will lead you to somewhere in the general range of +20 WAR as Darvish’s target.
So, how reasonable is it for the Rangers to expect +20 wins of value from Darvish over the next six years. To answer that question, I decided to look at rolling six year windows over the last 10 years to see just how many pitchers have generally been able to perform at that kind of level. Here are the totals for each six year window since 2002:
2002-2007: 24 pitchers, Roy Halladay (+34.8) to Jake Peavy (+20.8)
2003-2008: 24 pitchers, Johan Santana (+34.8) to Jason Schmidt (+20.3)
2004-2009: 23 pitchers, Johan Santana (+34.6) to Zack Greinke (+20.1)
2005-2010: 20 pitchers, Roy Halladay (+37.0) to Derek Lowe (+20.7)
2006-2011: 22 pitchers, Roy Halladay (+40.7) to Chris Carpenter (+20.0)
The data is pretty steady – beyond just pointing out how great Mr. Halladay has been, there are about two dozen starting pitchers in any six year window that rack up +20 wins of value. It’s perhaps a more inclusive group than you would think in order to justify the seventh largest acquisition cost ever for a pitcher, but you have to keep inflation in mind – $111 million today is a lot less than $121 million was when the Rockies gave Mike Hampton his mega-contract. So, while the list of $100M pitchers is a bit of a scary one, we need to keep those rising costs of wins in mind, and realize that less is being asked of Darvish at this price than other big ticket pitchers from the past.
So, what does +20 WAR over six years from a starting pitcher look like. Well, it comes in various shapes and sizes, as a starter can accumulate that kind of value either through excellence mixed with injuries or something lower quality but backed up with high-end durability. Here are the lines from those pitchers who were worth almost exactly +20 WAR during their six year window, so you can get an idea of about different the paths Darvish can take to success:
These five pitchers represent something of a scale, showing what combinations of innings and run prevention will add to something in the +20 WAR range. At the low end of quantity, Greinke only managed 828 innings – just over 136 per year – but was so good when he was on the mound that he still managed to produce +20 WAR during that time frame. Carpenter is a similar story, and as these guys show, being the best pitcher in baseball in one season would go a long way towards helping Darvish earn his keep. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a workhorse in order to provide enough value, but if injuries become a problem, he’ll need to prevent runs at a rate near 20 percent better than average in order to get to this kind of level.
If solid workhorse is what you think Darvish might be, though, then Derek Lowe is your example. While he wasn’t an elite pitcher in terms of run prevention, he averaged 206 innings per season from 2005-2010, and showed just how valuable a durable innings eater can really be. This is probably not the scenario the Rangers are hoping for, as they acquired Darvish with the idea that he could be more ace than middle-of-the-rotation guy, but as Lowe shows, if he stays healthy for the next six years, he doesn’t have to pitch like a top-of-the-rotation starter in order to be worth the money.
Haren and Peavy represent something of a happy medium between those extremes, and probably the more likely path for Darvish to travel if he’s going to live up to the hype. They threw about 1,000 innings and prevented runs at a rate about 15 percent better than average – neither mark puts them among the league leaders in either quality or quantity, but the combination of being pretty good and staying fairly healthy added up to +20 WAR for each pitcher.
The San Diego version of Jake Peavy was a pretty good starter with some injury problems. The Oakland version of Dan Haren was a very solid starting pitcher who hadn’t quite made the leap to elite pitcher. This is basically what the Texas Rangers just paid for – good production, reasonable health, a guy who pitches at a borderline All-Star level and doesn’t spend too many years on the DL.
Considering that Darvish has never pitched in Major League Baseball, it’s a pretty optimistic projection, but his performances in Japan suggest that he could live up to the contract. As with any pitcher, though, the deal obviously comes with enormous risks. Can he be the new Jake Peavy? The Rangers just bet $111 million that he can be.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.