Yu Darvish: Real Deal?

Author’s note: Minor edit toward the end.

Yes. Here’s why:

– Darvish has had three straight seasons better than than any one Daisuke Matsuzaka managed in Japan. In each of the past three years, he’s posted a sub-2.00 era and a whip of 0.90 or better. Matsuzaka never achieved either figure during his time in NPB.

– NPB batters find him nearly unhittable. Over the last three seasons, he’s hits/9IP were: 5.84 (2009), 6.10 (2008), 5.33 (2007). Nippon Ham’s strong defense plays a role here, as Darvish’s BABIP was .241 last year. But Darvish keeps the ball on the ground, and his number was well ahead of the team average of .291.

– He throws six or seven pitches for strikes in game situations. According to my un-trained scouting eye, five of them are potentially above-average MLB pitches: his fastball, slider, forkball, curve and shuuto (two-seam fastball). To get a sense of how Darvish mixes things up, take a look at the velocity chart his opening day start.

– He’s got velocity. Darvish usually works his fastball in the 92-93 range, but is capable of running it up to 95-96.

– He changes speeds. Darvish’s curveball bottoms out at under 60mph, and he has other offerings in the 75-85mph range.

– Darvish is young (not yet 24), and “projectable” (6’5, 188 lbs).

– He eats up innings. Darvish has averaged about eight innings per start over the last three years.

Darvish does have a few minor areas of concern:

– He throws a lot of pitches. Darvish threw 147 pitches on opening day, in a complete game losing effort. Back in July 2008, Darvish threw 165 pitches in a loss.

– He hasn’t put up a truly dominant strikeout season. Over the last three years, Darvish has been in the 8-9 K/9IP range, but given his stuff and the number of pitches he throws, I’d love to see him put up 12-13 K/9IP season.

– The amount of mileage on his arm is somewhat of a concern, though not as much as it might be. Darvish throws a lot of pitches and goes deep into games, but gets plenty of rest between starts. His career high for innings is 207.2, in 2008. Matsuzaka, on the other hand, was abused to the tune of 240.1 IP during his age 20 season. Still, Darvish missed the last month of the 2009 season with lower body strains.

The question I most commonly receive from readers is “when will Darvish come to the majors?” The answer is that Darvish has been outspoken about not wanting to make the leap to MLB. This is a stark contract to most other NPB stars — Koji Uehara, for example, talked for years about his dream of playing MLB ball before he actually did.

This is where Darvish’s ethnicity comes in to play. Darvish is half Iranian, but born and raised in Japan. He said in an interview prior to the 2007 Japan Series that growing up, he tried to fit in and gain acceptance with the other kids by performing on the baseball field. This in turn fueled his desire to succeed as a pro in Japan. I’ve also heard speculation that he’s reluctant to play in America because of a possible perception of anti-Iranian sentiment*, but I can’t remember seeing a quote attributed to him on the subject.

In any event, all the MLB teams will have an eye on him, just in case.

* a little disclaimer here: I’m not meaning to comment on the possible presence of anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States; I’m merely attempting to underscore the fact that Darvish’s background is uncommon for a ballplayer, which may make his situation a little more complex than we’re used to as fans.

Patrick Newman is a veteran enthusiast of Japanese baseball who happens to write about it at npbtracker.com, and on Twitter @npbtracker.

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six or seven pitches for strikes? that’s impressive