Life is filled with difficult, vague, and unknowable questions. Yet occasionally you get an easy one like 'who's the best pitching prospect in Japan?' Answering anyone other than Yu Darvish is like saying another flavor of Tic-Tac is better than orange. It's technically just an opinion, but any other opinion is wrong.
It's possible someone like Hisashi Iwakuma outperforms Darvish stateside, just like it's possible the reason Zooey Deschanel split with the dude from Death Cab is she stumbled upon my writing and fell in love with me via my word magic. There's a parallel universe where it'll happen, but it probably won't be this one.
Yu Darvish is good, on that we can all agree. The question of just how good, requires a little more insight and is, presumably, the reason you came here.
Darvish's last start came versus the Saiama Seibu Lions, a perennial powerhouse in Nippon Professional Baseball. Through the magic of the interwebs you can watch it here (http://www.justin.tv/asdfg585/b/298631204). This start provided my first extended look at one of the planet's most hyped prospects.
My previous exposure to Darvish, came via short stints in the World Baseball Classic and YouTube videos, had left me kind of lukewarm on his prospect status. But the more I see him, the more I bullish I become.
The half-Iranian Darvish towers over most of his Japanese rivals. His lanky 6-foot-5 frame could easily add 15 pounds of muscle without sacrificing any of his excellent athleticism.
Darvish has been a truly dominant force in Japan for several season now. A four-time All Star, Darvish is in the midst of a five year run posting sub-2.00 ERA's (a NPB record) and thrice has had a WHIP of 0.90 or lower while twice being named the league's MVP. Over his four full seasons as a starter he has maintained a K:BB ratio of nearly 4.4:1 while whiffing over a batter per inning.
There's no way to meaningfully splice the numbers in which Darvish doesn't come out as one of the handful of greatest pitchers in Japanese history. If he isn't the best of all time at his age (24), he's at least on the Mount Rushmore.
The righthander works with a deep array of pitches, common for top Japanese hurlers. He throws four-seam, two-seam and cut fastballs and compliments them with at least three different breaking balls. I've also seen reports of Darvish mixing in a change-up and the ever elusive shuuto, often referred to as a 'gyroball' in the US, where the batter sees a dot and thus reads breaking ball but the pitch actually stays straight -- think of it like a backup slider.
Darvish has well-above-average arm strength. His fastball sat 151-155 km/h or 93-95 MPH for you non-metric types out there. Able to hit his spots around the knees while occasionally going upstairs for effect, Darvish has advanced control of his fastball coupled with the ability to sink, cut, or run the ball inside. His fastball doesn't move a ton, but it does move and move late. Everything Darvish throws off his fastball is heavy. Guys like him keep bat makers in business; Darvish will leave many big leaguers with toothpicks in their hands.
A couple different forms of slider are evident in Darvish's arsenal; one with more horizontal break, one vertical. He showed very good control, able to throw sliders for strikes, utilizing them most often early in the count. Occasionally he would sharpen the break and throw the pitch out of zone with two-strikes. When he did, the results were nasty.
He'll work in a very slow curve ball in the low 60 MPH range, just to keep batters off-balance. If you're squaring off against Darvish, you have to be ready for the ball to come in at pretty much any speed.
I didn't see a below-average pitch from Darvish. He doesn't have super, elite stuff like a Verlander but everything is good. I'd grade his fastball a 65, he seemed to have the most confidence in it. He probably has four or five other pitches that are 50-55 grades on the scouting scale to go along with 60+ command.
- His pitch sequencing impressed me. Darvish seems to have a real plan off attack. It's an aggressive plan. He mixes speeds very well, especially early in the count then goes for the kill by running a fastball at your knuckles. He didn't pitch around guys, but wasn't reckless. There were a few fastballs in the Seibu game that hung over the middle that he might not be able to get away with at the MLB level but he seems like the kind of pitcher who'll figure out what works quickly and adapt.
- Darvish is a really excellent fielder. A two-time Gold Glove winner in the NPB he'd immediately be on of the best fielding pitchers in the bigs upon his arrival.
- There's a good amount of functional deception in his delivery. By that I mean, he seems to hide the ball well without killing all efficiency in his mechanics.
- He utilizes his lower half very well, excellent hip rotation. If we've taught you nothing else about baseball mechanics it should be that hip rotation IS power.
- I could nitpick a few small things in his delivery, but I don't see the point. He grew up in a different culture, with a different way of teaching mechanics. It's all about what works for you, this is what works for his body. He's young, healthy, durable. He repeats well. He's athletic.
- Darvish's statistical profile is awfully similar to Daisuke Matsuzaka. While Dice-K's struggles in recent years may taint that comparison in the minds of some, don't forget that Matsuzaka was worth 7.2 WAR over his first two seasons in Boston.
The terrific Eno Sarris over at FanGraphs points out an important difference between the two Japanese hurlers:
"Darvish has avoided the notorious overwork that plagued Matsuzaka’s amateur and early pro careers. Like Matsuzaka’s teenage years, young Darvish pitched at Koshien, Japan’s national high school baseball tournament. Unlike Matsuzaka, he doesn’t quite have a 250-pitch, 17-inning complete game on his resume. Darvish’s longest outing was a 166-pitch game that he lost on a walk-off home run in the 10th inning. Also, unlike Matsuzaka, Darvish was eased into his pro career: he threw 94.1 innings and 149.2 innings in his first two pro years. Matsuzaka, by contrast, threw 180 innings as an 18 year-old rookie — 347.2 in his first two seasons — and set a career high with 240.1 innings in his third. In essence, Darvish has fired fewer bullets."
I don't see Yu Darvish as an ace. I think the upgrade in competition will knock him off that vaunted perch. That said, I think he's going to be a really good MLB pitcher. I'd peg him as a 4.0 WAR starter for next season, and there's certainly potential for him to exceed those numbers. I see a well-above-average all around starter, a No. 2 guy on a first-division club. I'd be displeased if my favorite club committed nine-figures to procure his services but he has age, production, stuff, command, and poise on his side to score a major deal.
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