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Will Yu Darvish Pass Up Ichiro as the Greatest Japanese Player in MLB History?

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Will Yu Darvish Pass Up Ichiro as the Greatest Japanese Player in MLB History?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

As baseball fans get set for a fantastic pitching battle on Thursday evening between two of the top pitchers in baseball, Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander, it's worth taking a minute to reflect on the success that Darvish as been since his arrival last year from Japan.

With Ichiro Suzuki fading, possibly into a part-time role in New York, Darvish has seized the mantle as the best Japanese born player in Major League Baseball.

While the best is yet to come for the 26-year-old right-handed ace in Texas, he's already posted outstanding numbers in 37 career major league starts: 244 IP, 301 K, 107 BB, 11.1 K/9, 2.81 K/BB. But he still has light years to go in order to surpass Ichiro as the greatest Japanese player in Major League Baseball history.

Of course, if you just dropped into the baseball scene last year, this would be a strange debate.

In 2012, Darvish established himself as a true top-of-the-rotation arm for Texas, striking out batters at a high rate and profiling as an ace.

Meanwhile, Ichiro, at the age of 38, posted a .288 OBP for the Seattle Mariners before being shipped to the New York Yankees in late July. Despite a September surge, decline is in full force for the former star right fielder. Thus far this season, Ichiro is holding on to playing time despite a .281 OBP.

In 2013, the best Japanese player is easy to define. When history is taken into context, the debate changes.

Yu Darvish has the ability, stuff and potential to be a Cy Young winner, world champion and the greatest Japanese pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball, but surpassing Ichiro as the greatest overall player will be a much, much more difficult task.

Ichiro's age and decline shouldn't mask what he was for the Seattle Mariners upon arriving to the United States in 2001.

From the Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first year to a decade of dominance in right field, Ichiro established himself as one of the best outfielders in the history of the sport.

In a way, Ichiro has become underrated as the years have passed due to the era of advanced statistics, Moneyball and greater value on on-base percentage over batting average.

As a career .321 hitter, Ichiro is in the top 50 for batting average in the history of the game. Simply put, he's a tremendous pure hitter, racking up 2,637 career hits despite not leaving Japan until his age-27 season. In another era, the four seasons of a .350 or better average, including an otherworldly .372 mark in 2004, would have been widely celebrated.

While Ichiro's main offensive game was derived from great batting averages, don't discount the overall player he was and how well he does stack up when measured by advanced statistics.

Along with his pure hitting ability, Ichiro brought outrageous range to right field, a cannon for an arm to wipe out opposing runners and blazing speed, racking up 457 career stolen bases.

For his career, Suzuki amassed a 57.2 WAR. That number his higher than Whitey Ford, Hank Greenberg or Sammy Sosa.

Ironically, Ichiro's ability to put together the career he has after leaving his prime years behind in Japan is equal parts remarkable, and a slight advantage Darvish can have over him in the long haul.

While Ichiro's numbers are Hall of Fame worthy, he might be considered even more of an immortal star if he had arrived at the age of 25, like Darvish, rather than 27. Using his career averages, it's easy to imagine Ichiro approaching 3,000 career hits in America with two more years to work with in Seattle.

At present time, his 10 All-Star Game appearances place him ahead of Albert Pujols, Bob Gibson and Chipper Jones on the All-Star leader board. Two more Midsummer Classics would have him tied with Mel Ott and Frank Robinson.

Giving him around 10 more career Wins Above Replacement would also put him in the echelon of the top 70 or so position players in baseball history.

Only two players in the history of the sport, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, have more Gold Glove's than Ichiro's 10. Two more prime-aged seasons in Seattle's outfielder would have likely resonated with voters, tying him with Clemente and Mays.

For as dominant as Darvish can be, it's highly unlikely that he can top Ichiro. Yet the potential for extra years could lead to a higher number of stats and awards.

Fifteen years from now, if Darvish has racked up multiple Cy Young's, thousands of strikeouts and won a world championship as the Rangers' ace, there's a chance for a real debate.

Of course, it's also worth noting that Ichiro's success blazed an easier path for Darvish.

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As hard as it is to think of now, there were legitimate concerns over Ichiro's ability and potential impact when he arrived in America prior to the 2001 season. Whether it was fear of the unknown, lack of past Japanese stars succeeding in America, his contact/speed approach in a power hitter's game or some sort of vague baseball xenophobia, Ichiro had to prove himself as not only a star major league player, but a star Japanese major league player.

With that trail blazed, Darvish can just pitch.

Along the way, he'll try to catch the guy who has set the bar for Japanese-born baseball stars.

Is Darvish following Ichiro's path to greatness in America?

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