Yu Darvish's Command Will Come ... Or Will It?

Yu Darvish #11 of the Texas Rangers pitches against the Oakland Athletics at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)

The 2012 season has brought its share of pleasant surprises among the latest crop of major league virgins or near-virgins, among them Mike Trout, who has exceeded all possible expectations in his age-20 campaign, Scott Diamond of the Twins, whose exquisite command has helped his team escape the 100-loss pace that once seemed inevitable, Rockies' infielder Josh Rutledge, whose .356/.372/.700 jump from Double-A has given the Rockies the unexpected chance to jumpstart their rebuilding once Troy Tulowitzki returns from groin surgery, and Milwaukee's Mike Fiers, a 27-year-old rookie whose preseason ranking as the 12th-best prospect in the Brewers' organization did not anticipate a 1.80 ERA after 12 starts.

Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish must rank high among those in the opposite column, the disappointments. Darvish was widely considered the most promising player ever posted by the Japanese major leagues. No over-the-hill veteran, Darvish was coming off of his age-24 season, had great stuff, and exquisite command of a huge arsenal of pitches. (Fangraphs lists seven: fastball, slider, cutter, curve, change, splitter, and "XX," which stands either for "unknown" or "pornball.")

Translating a Japanese player's performance to the American majors is always a dicey proposition, but given Darvish's age, stuff, and career 1.72 ERA and stunning peripherals, the Rangers, who between posting fee and contract have invested more than $100 million in Darvish, seemed to have a large margin for error: Darvish could have doubled his Japanese ERA and still been a highly valuable starting pitcher.

Of course, he has more than doubled it, especially lately; Darvish's ERA is 4.57 this season, and climbing. Here are his first 11 starts, followed by his next (and most recent) 10:

GS

IP

H/9

BB/9

SO/9

HR/9

Avg/OBP/Slug

PIT

RA

1-11

67

8.0

5.1

9.8

0.7

.233/.339/.346

107

3.74

12-21

66

8.2

4.9

10.9

0.9

.242/.345/.409

113

6.07

Darvish's last three starts have been especially poor, the pitcher receiving consecutive shellackings at the hands of the White Sox, Angels, and Red Sox for a total of 19 runs in 18 innings. Intriguingly, the worse Darvish has pitched the more pitches he has thrown; in his most recent start, Rangers manager Ron Washington left Darvish on the mound for 123 pitches in 6⅔ innings despite Darvish allowing his sixth run of the game to open the seventh inning. Darvish fanned the next two hitters, then issued a wild pitch and a walk before finally departing; all of this effort could have been saved given the Rangers' 6-1 deficit at the time.

Handling such as this can't be helping Darvish, but the larger issue is his lack of command. Darvish trails only Cleveland's Ubaldo Jimenez in both total walks allowed and walks per nine. The American League average is 3.1; Darvish has allowed almost two more than that. No matter his stuff -- he is fourth in total strikeouts and second in strikeouts per nine -- or the deceptiveness of his offspeed pitches, it's asking a pitcher to be simultaneously lucky and good to survive all of those baserunners. Batters are not devastating Darvish with runners on, hitting .244/.342/.366, but given all of those baserunners -- Darvish has allowed the sixth-most in baseball -- the damage has inevitably been done. Arguably he has been a bit unlucky; xFIP suggests better results in the future, but 223 baserunners in 134 innings speaks for itself.

The question now is if Darvish can pull out of his tailspin and give the Rangers the value to justify the cost of acquisition. This is unlikely on the face of it, given that he will have to provide it annually, but we can hope for the best. On Tuesday at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron took a shot at this by looking for Darvish's "Bad Command Comparables." The results were not promising. I would argue that such an effort, while instructive, is hardly conclusive; there is no pitcher in baseball who has Darvish's precise background, and whatever the greater difficulties of mastering the American strike zone, which is proportioned differently than the Japanese equivalent, or getting major league hitters to swing at one's offerings (FanGraphs data suggests that batters are fractionally more reluctant to swing at Darvish's pitches than they are those of the average pitcher), Darvish's long history of good command cannot be entirely discounted.

Baseball Prospectus once estimated the talent level of the Japanese majors to be roughly equivalent to that of our Double-A ball. We have often seen pitchers who were able to enticed lower-level batters to chase tricky offerings, only to fail as they faced more discerning hitters. Darvish doesn't fit that portrait, with a fastball sitting at 93-94 mph. We might be better served to view him as a true rookie, a promising pitcher who did extraordinary things in the minor leagues but requires an adjustment period to succeed in the majors.

For every Dwight Gooden, or for that matter, Mike Fiers, who comes storming out of the gate, there are many more pitchers who need a few trips around the league to figure out what they're doing. It is possible that, despite his great success overseas, Darvish is simply giving American hitters too much credit.

In the end, no one knows what the outcome will be, which is what makes the Rangers' attempt to hurdle the pitcher-development process and go directly to "finished Cy Young-level product" such an audacious gamble. It may be that the real Darvish will emerge as soon as his next start, or in the playoffs, or as next season, or the season after. Or never, and we're seeing the "real" pitcher now.

I am erring on the side of optimism. It is the same faith in the predictive qualities of domestic minor league stats that allows me to have faith in Darvish's previously demonstrated Pacific Rim command. Besides, how many pitchers have as promising a secret weapon at their disposal as the Unknown Pornball?

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