Who Will Be This Year's Yu Darvish at the 2013 World Baseball Classic?
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Yu Darvish announced his presence to the baseball world at-large during the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Those who follow Japanese baseball or just take a global view of the sport may have been aware of Darvish prior to the 2009 WBC. Pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2008, Darvish compiled a 16-4 record and 1.88 ERA in 24 starts (25 appearances). He struck out 208 batters in 200.2 innings.
Though Darvish struggled at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (5.14 ERA in seven innings), he carried his success from the Japan Pacific League into the 2009 WBC. Darvish went 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA, striking out 20 batters in 13 innings, helping Japan to its second consecutive WBC championship.
Over the next four years, Darvish became the highest-paid player in Japan (500 million Japanese yen or $6.4 million U.S. dollars) and became the prize of a bidding war among several MLB teams including the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rangers, of course, won the auction and signed Darvish to a six-year, $90 million contract last year. As a 25-year-old rookie, the right-hander went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 29 starts for Texas. He struck out 221 batters—the fourth-best total in the American League—in 191.1 innings.
Could anyone participating in the 2013 WBC replicate Darvish's success in the tournament and parlay that into a big MLB contract?
First, let's consider that most of the 32 countries participating in the WBC have rosters made up of talent currently playing in the major and minor leagues. To stock their rosters, the rules allow players with particular ancestries to play for certain countries.
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For instance, Team Italy has the Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees' Francisco Cervelli, Los Angeles Dodgers' Nick Punto and Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Grilli on its squad. None of those players are actually from Italy.
But all of them are of Italian descent in one form or another, even if the connection has to be stretched out to a great-grandmother's sister's first cousin.
That sort of profile didn't apply to Darvish when he pitched for Team Japan in 2009.
He had never pitched in the major leagues prior to participating in the WBC tournament. To most of the fans watching that year, Darvish was a largely unknown figure almost mythological—since few had seen him pitch outside of Japan.
After the WBC, however, Darvish was the player most baseball fans wanted to talk about. His performance significantly boosted anticipation for whether or not he would go to the United States and pitch in the major leagues.
How might Darvish do compared to a Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda or Daisuke Matsuzaka, especially if he began his MLB career at a younger age than his predecessors?
The 2013 version of Darvish would have to be relatively young as well. Not necessarily as young as Darvish was in the 2009 WBC, when he was 22 years old. But he can't be a 30-year-old veteran who already had his prime years pitching in the Japanese or Korean leagues.
That would rule out someone like Tadashi Settsu, for example. Settsu is a 30-year-old right-hander who made his Japanese Pacific League debut for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in 2009. He pitched his first two seasons as a reliever before becoming a starter.
Settsu had an outstanding 2012 season. In 27 starts, he finished with a 17-5 record and 1.91 ERA. But Settsu isn't the strikeout pitcher Darvish is, averaging 7.1 K's per nine innings last year.
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The breakout star of the 2013 WBC could still be on Team Japan, however.
Though it might seem like a copout to pick another Japanese pitcher to be this year's Darvish, Japan does have the best team—considered a contender to win the tournament yet again—not made up of several major leaguers.
Perhaps the best candidate to emerge from relative obscurity and make the baseball world take notice is 24-year-old right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka has pitched six seasons in Japan for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, compiling a 75-35 record with a 2.50 ERA. He has a career average of 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, while issuing only two walks per nine frames.
In 2012, Tanaka finished with a 10-4 record and 1.87 ERA, with 169 strikeouts in 173 innings.
At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Tanaka isn't the imposing physical presence on the mound that Darvish presents at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. That surely plays a role in Darvish's ability to dominate batters and strike them out—especially at the major league level of play.
According to Baseball-Reference, Tanaka features four pitches in his repertoire. He averages in the low-90s with a four-seam fastball, while also mixing in a hard slider, split-finger and two-seam fastball.
As impressive as that sounds, it doesn't match the supposed—surely exaggerated—seven-pitch arsenal that Darvish could throw at opposing batters. During spring training last year, according to ESPN Dallas' Richard Durrett, Darvish showed a four-seam and two-seam fastball, changeup, split-finger, curveball, slider and cut fastball.
Mythology? Maybe a little bit.
Tanaka's reputation might not precede him, as Darvish's did. But he could be the pitcher to keep an eye on during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Maybe we'll see him give the major leagues a try soon after that.
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