Does Darvish Have the Right Stuff for Major League Success?

Ninomiya Seijun [Profile]

[2012.04.18] Read in: 日本語 | ESPAÑOL |

The Texas Rangers paid a record sum to bring pitcher Darvish Yū over from Japan. Darvish has broken a few records of his own as a Japanese pro, including an ERA under 2.00 for the past five seasons. The question is whether he can match that success as a Major League Baseball pitcher. Sports journalist Ninomiya Seijun shares his take on the prospects for this young pitching phenomenon.

I’m often asked if Darvish Yū will have as much success as a Major League Baseball pitcher as he has had on the mound in Japan. And my answer is the same each time: “Why not?” No one doubts that Darvish has the skills needed for the MLB; the question boils down to how well can he make good on those skills.

The Texas Rangers spent over $111 million to put Darvish in their uniform. This astounding sum includes a $60 million six-year contract and the over $50 million acquisition fee paid to the Japanese club he played for—the highest fee paid since the posting system regulating trades between Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB was established in 1998.

For the investment in Darvish to pay off for the Rangers, the pitching phenom will need to deliver at least 90 wins over his six-year contract, for around 15 wins a season. The hopes of many Rangers fans that the team will capture its first World Series title are clearly riding on the gifted right arm of Darvish.

The young pitcher is not crossing the Pacific as an unproven talent, however. His statistics over the past five years in the Japanese pro baseball league are ample proof that he is the real deal.

Season Record
2007 15 wins, 5 losses, 1.82 ERA
2008 16 wins, 4 losses, 1.88 ERA
2009 15 wins, 5 losses, 1.73 ERA
2010 12 wins, 8 losses, 1.78 ERA
2011 18 wins, 6 losses, 1.44 ERA

Maintaining an ERA under 2.00 for a record-breaking five years in a row is something that even the legends of Japanese baseball—like 400-game winner Kaneda Masaichi, or the revered “God” of Japanese baseball, Inao Kazuhisa—never managed to achieve. It is no mean feat for a pitcher to deliver the sort of consistency that has been Darvish’s trademark.

At his first press conference as a Texas Ranger, Darvish told reporters: “My fastball isn’t really as fast as everyone says. I have a lot of breaking balls, changeups and other pitches, and I think I can show them some good pitches.” Surely Darvish was being humble. With a top speed of 156 kph (97 mph), if his fastball “isn’t as fast as everyone thinks,” what on earth is fast?

No Rival at the Plate in Japan

By his own admission, Darvish has more confidence in his breaking balls and off-speed pitches than his fastball. In a recent interview for a baseball magazine, he listed a repertoire of nine pitches: a vertical slider, horizontal slider, curveball, cut fastball, forkball, split-fingered fastball, changeup, sinker, and two-seam fastball. But a closer look reveals that he actually has a dozen or so pitches. Truly, the young man is a wizard on the mound.

Japanese pro baseball referee Nakō Kazuaki once said of Darvish: “He has this breaking pitch; it isn’t a screwball and it isn’t a forkball. I asked catcher Tsuruoka Shinya and he told me it was a one seam. But to be honest, I think Tsuruoka had his hands full just trying to catch the pitches, and wasn’t really thinking about how the balls were breaking.” If a catcher has a hard time keeping up with a pitch, imagine how a batter is going to struggle with it. Trying to put a bat’s sweet-spot on a pitch like that is a tough job for anyone.

Just ask Nakamura Takeya of the Saitama Seibu Lions, almost certainly the strongest hitter in Japan baseball today. The 102-kilogram batter, known by his teammates as “Okawari-kun” (Mr. Second Helping) for his voracious appetite, was home-run king in 2011 for the third time. He knocked 48 pitches out of the park that year despite the introduction of a new, less elastic baseball that resulted in a 40% year-on-year drop in home runs across the league. But put this slugger, also known as the “Japanese cannon,” in front of Darvish, and he seems more like a condemned man facing a firing squad. Last season the two squared off eight times and Nakamura could not manage a single hit—striking out five times.

So many of the great Japanese pitchers had legendary rivals in the batter’s box: Murayama Minoru pitched against Nagashima Shigeo, Enatsu Yutaka battled Oh Sadaharu, and more recently Nomo Hideo (who went on to the majors), faced off against Kiyohara Kazuhiro. But no Japanese batter was able to step up to the plate as a true rival for Darvish. If he is looking for a showdown he’ll have to find it among the MLB superstars.

Making Some “Major” Adjustments

Of course, the past achievements of Darvish are no guarantee of future success in the big leagues. On the mound in Japan he faced a lot of precision hitters in the mold of Suzuki Ichirō, but the level of power hitting was not in the same ball park as what he will be facing as a Texas Ranger. It’s hard to overstate this difference in power hitting between Japan and the Major Leagues. Even a pitcher as talented as Darvish is bound to have some tough outings as a result.

But it may be the ball in the majors—more than the batters—that will present Darvish with the biggest challenge. As many commentators have pointed out, the MLB baseballs are slicker and have more pronounced stitching than the balls used in Japan.

Uehara Kōji, a Japanese pitcher traded from the Baltimore Orioles to the Texas Rangers last season, once told me, with a weary look, about his own tough adjustments to the American balls: “The difference between the [high-quality] baseballs used in the Japanese pro leagues and the MLB balls is like heaven and hell. All of the American baseballs are a bit different from each other, and they’re slipperier than the ones in Japan. I’m still struggling with the baseballs over here now.”

Only time will tell whether a pitcher can make the adjustment to the baseballs used in the United States. But the seriousness of the problem is clear from the fact that Uehara, after three seasons in the American League, still hasn’t quite got a grip on things. Perhaps unconsciously—at the fingertip level—he has had a negative reaction to the unfamiliar baseballs.

The more prominent stitching on the MLB balls creates greater air resistance, resulting in stronger breaks and curves. This would seem to work to the advantage of a pitcher who favors off-speed and breaking balls. But in the case of a pitcher like Darvish, who has a deep menu of pitches to choose from, that stitching is not necessarily a plus. If a pitch breaks or curves harder than intended it might drift out of the strike zone, just as one aimed a bit inside or outside could instead land right in a batter’s sweet spot. I saw this happen to Darvish at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Even recognizing these challenges that Darvish will face, I still think that he will be a major league success. In fact, with his remarkable talent, I would not be surprised if he eventually takes take home a Cy Young Award.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 2, 2012. Title background photograph courtesy Sankei Shimbun.)

  • [2012.04.18]

An independent sports journalist. Born in 1960. Has covered a wide variety of sporting events in Japan and overseas, including the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, boxing title fights, and major league baseball games. Along with his work as a sportswriter, he serves on the board of trustees of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles professional baseball team and frequently appears as a commentator on TV sports programs. Recent published works include Tensai tachi no puro yakyū (Pro Baseball Wizards) and Puro yakyū no shokunin tachi (Master Craftsmen of Pro Baseball).

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