An Update on Japanese Pitching Sensation Yu Darvish

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An Update on Japanese Pitching Sensation Yu Darvish
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Yu Darvish is God.

That’s a wild exaggeration, but now that Stephen Strasburg is pitching for the Nationals, Darvish is the best pitcher in the world not pitching in the major leagues.  Here’s a post I wrote in May of 2009 about Darvish for background.

After three consecutive full seasons with ERAs of 1.82, 1.88, and 1.73, through half a season (15 starts) in 2010, Darvish has a an ERA of 1.46.  Despite heavy work loads at a tender age, Darvish has the highest strikeouts per innings pitched rate of his career so far this season to go along with a 3.5-to-1 Ks-to-BBs rate.

The give you an idea of just how good Darvish has been so far in 2010, the next best pitcher in Japan’s Pacific League—Hisashi Iwakuma of the Rakuten Golden Eagles—has an ERA of 2.53, more than a run higher than Darvish.  And Iwakuma is a great pitcher in his own right.  At age 29, Iwakuma would likely be a star pitching in the U.S. right now, and had seasons in NPB (2004 and 2008) where he went 15-2 and 21-4.

Unfortunately, we in the States are far more likely to see Iwakuma than Darvish pitch in the U.S. in the near future.  Iwakuma is pitching in his 10th season in NPB.  He’s a free agent at the end of this season and has expressed some willingness to pitch in the U.S.  He’ll definitely draw serious interest given his career and 2010 records.

However, Iwakuma is no Yu Darvish.  Darvish is young (turns 24 on August 16), throws high 90s, and is incredibly polished.  He’s exactly what major league teams are looking for, and he’d likely top the money paid out by the Red Sox for Daisuke Matsuzaka in fees to Darvish’s team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and in salary to Darvish, if he were made available to U.S. teams.

Nippon Ham is not one of Japan’s powerhouse teams, so you’d certainly think they’ve given consideration to posting Darvish for American teams to bid on.  However, Darvish has yet to express any interest in pitching in the U.S.

While Japanese players can make a lot more money in salary pitching in the U.S., their endorsement opportunities are much greater in Japan, and they are revered at home, where baseball is far and away the most popular team sport, in a way that American baseball players haven’t been since at least the 1960s.  That can be hard to leave behind.

On the other hand, the lure of receiving top dollar and playing on the world’s biggest baseball stage against the world’s best competition is also great for NPB’s top players. 

Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Matsuzaka have made a lot more money playing in the U.S. than they would have at home, and that’s taking into account the fact that Godzilla was offered a nine or 10 year $61 million deal, by far the most ever offered by a Japanese team, to stay with the Yomiuri Giants the year before he came to the U.S.

The desire to prove you can play with the very best and be compensated accordingly is generally very high when talking about these kinds of players.

My guess is that at some point in the not-so-distant future, Darvish is going to decide he’s had enough of pushing around NPB’s hitters and will want to prove himself against the best the World has to offer.  Except for the top Cuban players who aren’t willing to defect, those players are all in MLB.

I still have some doubts about Darvish’s long-term prospects because he has thrown so many professional innings before age 25 (951.1 IP in NPB as I write this).  However, he’s shown no major ill effects of the work load so far, so you never know.  He might be one of those pitchers who can handle a heavy work load (although I kind of doubt it).

Thanks to this post from NPB Tracker, you can watch all of Darvish’s July 3, 2010 start against the Golden Eagles.  Patrick even lists the exact time when you can see Darvish throw a 155 km/hr (96 mph) fastball out of the stretch to strike out some overmatched NPB hitter. 

The pitch isn’t close to the strike zone, but the beauty of the high hard one is that the harder you throw it, the further out of the strike zone they’ll chase it.

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