Bear with me; I know this is a long slide, but since I'm ranking this deal as the worst free agent signing of the year, I'd like to explain my reasoning.
Let's start with two words: Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In 2006, the Red Sox paid a $51.1 million posting fee for Matsuzaka, then signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract.
The Dice-K experience was not a good one for Boston. He had two good seasons, going 33-15 with a 3.72 ERA. From the third season on, he has gone 16-15 with a 5.03 ERA while suffering one injury after another.
On the face of it, Darvish sounds like the real deal. The 26-year-old right-hander allowed only five home runs in the entire 2011 season while posting an 18-6 record with a microscopic ERA of 1.44, for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League. He is widely considered to be the best pitcher in Japan.
Yes, Darvish has ace-like potential, but the Rangers are sinking $108 million—the most ever spent on a free-agent right-hander—into a player who never has thrown a pitch in the big leagues.
Didn't they talk to the Red Sox?
There were enough warning signs out there for the Rangers to think twice about jumping into these perilous waters.
Last November, I wrote a story, "15 Ways The Red Sox Are Making Right Move Avoiding Yu Darvish."
I followed the reasoning of Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, among others, who throw up caution signs. In his story, he reports that he asked an MLB executive if the poor track record of other pitchers from Japan would discourage teams from bidding high on Darvish.
The exec replied, "Remarkably, no. In the landscape of a competitive market, people turn a blind eye to history or believe this is the one guy who is the exception to the rule—that somehow, this one guy is more capable than all the others we know about."
Verducci's piece described a phenomenon he calls the "Third-Year Wall" problem in good detail.
In the 16 years since Hideo Nomo debuted in the major leagues, 43 Japanese players have followed Nomo.
"Only three have been named to more than one All-Star team (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Sasaski)," writes Verducci, "And only 11 are active big leaguers, including Minnesota Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a .226 hitter with no home runs who became the latest of several players to struggle with the transition."
Nomo was the first to hit the Third-Year Wall. In his first two seasons, he was 29-17 with a 2.90 ERA. In his third year, his ERA rose to 4.25. He was traded in year four and released in year five. His ERA after hitting the wall was 4.61.
Verducci solidifies his argument by pointing out that since 1995, there have been nine pitchers from Japan, including Nomo, who have made 40 starts in the big leagues. Except for Hiroki Kuroda (3.45), all have posted career ERAs between 4.24 and 5.72.
Experts have come up with a number of differences between the game played in Japan and the game played in the US that could possibly contribute to the failure of most Japanese pitchers to adapt well.
Journeyman pitcher C.J. Nitkowski debuted with the Reds in 1995 and played for seven more major league teams before he went to Japan in 2007. He pitched for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks for two years and has spent the last three years pitching in Korea.
His website, cjbaseball.com, gives an excellent analysis of the technical differences between pitching in Japan and the US.
To start with, lineups aren't as deep, and there are fewer power hitters in Japan. The strike zone in Japan is bigger, especially inside, the mounds are softer and the Japanese baseball is (or seems) smaller and harder. (Adapting to the American ball has been particularly difficult for Matsuzaka; he has never been able to get the proper fell for his change-up, a very effective pitch for him in Japan.)
Perhaps the biggest factors are those that are most difficult to change. One is the Japanese work ethic, which seems to burn out pitchers more quickly. Another is the length of season (144 games in Japan) and total pitching workload. Also, most Japanese teams use a six-man rotation.
Nitkowski points out, "Nearly every Monday is an off day in the NPB, and rarely are there more than 6 games played in a row. That means in a six man rotation you’ll usually pitch every seven days."
Even with a five-man rotation, a starter usually gets six days off. Also, Japanese pitchers do not have to travel with their teams to road games if they are not pitching.
C.J. Nitkowski said about the Red Sox, "Despite their findings they still made the huge six year investment in Dice-K and right on cue, he began struggling in his third season with Boston. You have to imagine that the Red Sox brass was hoping Dice-K would beat the odds; they were betting $103 million on it, but he couldn’t do it."
Robert Whiting, an expert on Japanese baseball and the author of “You Gotta Have Wa," told the New York Times, “There are subtle — and not so subtle — differences between Japanese and American baseball that make it difficult for imported pitchers to adjust.”
And we never even mentioned diet or being 7,000 miles from home.
The bottom line for me, and the reason I rank the Yu Darvish signing the worst of all for this season, is that one of Verducci's primary sources for his Third-Year Wall analysis was none other than Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine. He is the one who told Verducci, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."
Levine concluded, "In general, the decline is pretty precipitous [for starting pitchers]. It's almost like relief pitchers in general. You can carve up their career in three-year cycles: good ones for two or three years and then they're almost done. It seems only the guys with an elite pitch are able to extend beyond that two- or three-year window."
And they still signed Darvish.
Wasn't it Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?