Looking at Yu Darvish’s record in Japan is like seeing what Greg Maddux would have done had he actually been good. In 128 games, he had a career 1.72 ERA, averaged 1.9 walks per nine and 9.5 strikeouts per nine. During his 1992 to 2000 peak, Maddux walked 1.5 and struck out 6.8 with a comparatively huge ERA of 2.40.
Comparing any newcomer to the majors to a Hall of Famer like Maddux is inherently unfair, even in Darvish’s case. The overall skill level of the Japanese majors has been compared to Double-A—good, but not of major-league quality.
Darvish’s outstanding stuff and command allowed him to carve up lineups that aren’t as deep as ours. He will still do his share of carving for the Texas Rangers, but he will also see lineups in which the eighth and ninth hitters are capable of popping a home run, a rarity in Japan.
Darvish will face a Seattle Mariners club that has opened the season 3-1 and has hit quite well, especially given their offensive production in 2010-2011 was historically poor. With generous adjustments for Safeco Field, the 2010 team ranks as one of the ten-worst offenses of the last 30 years, while the 2011 club is not much better, residing in the bottom 30.
It would be a mistake to take the season’s first four games as having any predictive power—that Chone Figgins is hitting .412 is a nice start, not an indicator that he has been possessed by the spirit of Ted Williams—but Darvish might have some roughly average competition in his first start.
The real pleasure here is not so much the quality of the Mariners’ offense, but that Ichiro Suzuki, the game’s greatest Japanese import, will face off against the latest claimant to that title. That makes for a nice symmetry.
In the same way that Chone Figgins has not become Wee Willie Keeler, Darvish’s first start will hardly tell the whole story of his season. In spring training, he looked very good, but not great. His command seemed to wander a bit, and command is a good deal of what made him so attractive as a pitcher.
After images of Daisuke Matsuzaka are burned on the retinas, making any suggestion of wildness almost traumatic. We will see if a pitcher who conquered the Japanese strike zone will have any problem with our own version. There is no reason to think that Darvish will struggle in this regard; there is a reason spring training stats don’t count.
We’ve already had something like four Opening Days this year, or 3.5, or maybe none at all; I’ve lost track. With the possible exception of Bryce Harper, Darvish’s debut is the most anticipated of 2012. As with Ichiro, Darvish arrives on our shores young enough to put together a career that could have significant value, Hall of Fame value. Again, that’s a heavy load to put on a fellow who has never before pitched in the American majors or minors, but Darvish has that kind of ability. Tune in and say you were there at the beginning.