How Good Will Yu Darvish Be, Really?

Not many top Japanese starting pitchers have joined Major League Baseball while still in or near their primes. But maybe we get a handle on Yu Darvish's future by looking at his predecessors.

The great majority of us can't simply watch a YouTube clip of Yu Darvish pitching and predict with any exactitude how well he'll fare against the best hitters in the world this summer. So how do we get a handle on Darvish's future as a Texas Ranger?

We can look at major-league pitchers who have gone to Japan and come back to the majors, but there aren't many of those guys of consequence; Colby Lewis, of course, is the most recent notable example.

We can also look at Japanese pitchers who have brought their talents to this side of the Pacific, but again there haven't been many of them. Not top starting pitchers, anyway.

To date, only eight Japanese-born pitchers have started at least 50 games in the American major leagues. But two of them -- Tomo Ohka and Mac Suzuki -- didn't establish themselves as starters in Japan before coming over. So that leaves, according to our criteria, only six notable Japanese starting pitchers:

Hideo Nomo
Hideki Irabu
Masato Yoshii
Kazuhisa Ishii
Daisuke Matsuzaka
Hiroki Kuroda

And to those notables, I will add one more: Kei Igawa, in whom the New York Yankees invested $46 million -- $26 million posting fee, plus five-year, $20 million contract. I think it's safe to say the Yankees thought Igawa would be a notable starting pitcher.*

* Which he has been, actually. Just not in a good way. For their $46 million, the Yankees have gotten exactly two wins ... unless you count his 33 victories with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. I want to see a Kei Igawa bobblehead on Andy Bernard's desk.

So that gives us seven pitchers who were good enough to a) be given a chance to start upon arriving in the States, and b) make at least a fair number of starts in the majors (with the exception of Igawa).

How does Darvish's record in Japan stack up against theirs?

Darvish -- like Matsuzaka, by the way -- went straight from high school to the Japanese majors, and spent most of his first two seasons as a teenager. Let's eliminate those years, and focus instead on his next five seasons: 2007-2011. And for the sake of comparison, let's look at the last five seasons in Japan for our other seven pitchers. Here's where Darvish ranks in a few key categories ...

Innings Pitched
1. Nomo (1051)
2. Darvish (1024)
3. Igawa (988)

Earned-Run Average
1. Darvish (1.72)
2. Matsuzaka (2.63)
3. Irabu (2.87)

Strikeout Rate
1. Nomo (10.3)
2. Ishii (10.1)
3. Irabu (9.8)
4. Darvish (9.5)
5. Matsuzaka (9.4)

Walk Rate
1. Kuroda (1.7)
2. Darvish (1.9)
3. Matsuzaka (2.3)

1. Darvish (4.9)
2. Matsuzaka (4.2)
2. Kuroda (3.9)

As you can see, Matsuzaka matches up pretty well with Darvish. Except in innings (as I wrote last month). Also, there's one key statistic we haven't talked about yet: home runs. Yu Darvish doesn't give up home runs. In the last two seasons, he pitched 434 innings and didn't give up a single home run.

Actually, he gave up 10 home runs in those 434 innings. I don't know anything about park effects in Japan, and apparently the ball's been deadened or something, lately. But 10 home runs in 434 innings is fairly unimpeachable, don't you think?

If there was some way to measure consistency, Darvish would come in first.*

* Yes, I know there is a way to measure consistency.

In the last five seasons, Darvish's ERAs were below 2. Every season for five straight seasons, 1-something.

Nobody's done that in these United States since the Dead Ball Era.

And 2011 was his best season: 1.44 ERA, 7.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If we ranked all 40 pitcher-seasons in our little study, Yu Darvish's 2011 would be Number One, too.

It's notoriously difficult to project Japanese pitchers. But Yu Darvish has the performance, he has the pitches, and I think he might be the Rangers' staff ace this season. I certainly think he'll rank among Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, and Daisuke Matsuzaka at their best.

Which would make Darvish, if he doesn't get hurt, well worth the Rangers' $19 million-per-season investment. And unlike Matsuzaka before he joined the Red Sox, Darvish has never really been hurt.

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