Darvish Leads Free Agent Pitchers

Jacob Eisenberg profiles the unsung leader of the 2011 MLB free agent class…

The 2011 MLB free agent class is the strongest it’s been in years. Headlined by Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the class features the two best first basemen in baseball. In addition to Pujols and Fielder, National League (NL) Batting Champion Jose Reyes and World Series Champion Jimmy Rollins add depth at the shortstop position. Add in several star closers (Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero) and four other hitters who were consistent All-Stars in their primes (David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, Aramis Ramirez and Grady Sizemore), and it’s become clear that only one thing is missing from the class … an elite ace pitcher.

Sure, Mark Buerhle has pitched a fantastic career and has left his mark in baseball history as a truly elite-fielding pitcher. At this stage in his career, however, he is a durable innings eater, not an ace.

Yes, Rangers ace C.J. Wilson seems to be entering his prime at the age of 30. But he is not elite. Yes, Wilson’s 16-7 record and 2.94 ERA in 2011 qualified among the best in baseball. And yes, he was the best pitcher during the regular season for a team that managed to make it within a game of winning the World Series. But Wilson’s horrible playoff will cost him some cash in the off-season, as teams will surely be scared off by his 5.79 postseason ERA. The only teams with enough cash to offer Wilson what he’s demanding are teams in playoff positions. Knowing Wilson has historically failed to come up clutch in big games should lower his demand from those teams.

However, there is one mystery in the free agent pool who very few fans know about and who might wind up becoming an elite ace in the major leagues down the road. Yu Darvish, the 25-year-old from the Nippon Ham Fighters, has been dominating the Japanese League since the age of 18 and seems ready to make his big-league leap in 2012.

In the 2009 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Darvish posted a 2-1 record with a 2.08 ERA for the eventual champions. In Japan, he is head and shoulders the best pitcher in the league.

After compiling his fifth consecutive season of a sub-2.00 ERA, Darvish is looking to take his talents to a higher level. Ex-Yankee Darrell Rasner, who has been pitching in Japan for the past three seasons, told The New York Daily News, “He’s the real deal … He’s the best pitcher there, in my opinion, and he’d do well in the States.” Former All-Star and MLB Network Anchor Harold Reynolds also explained to The New York Daily News, “The potential, it’s all there.”

While Japanese pitchers have tended to flounder in the MLB — Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Kenshin Kawakami and Daisuke Matsuzaka come to mind — others such as Hideo Nomo, Kaz Sasaki and Hiroki Kuroda have actually found success. Sure, of the Japanese pitchers, only Nomo was a fortified ace in the MLB. But, if a major league team knows not to expect a direct translation of Darvish’s statistics overseas, the acquisition may actually be worthwhile.

Teams will undoubtedly be scared off by the failures of Matsuzaka and Igawa. Both were bid for and signed on the belief they could become future aces. However, Igawa was never quite prepared for the skill of MLB players, and Matsuzaka injured his arm just as he was finding his stride. Had Matsuzaka not injured himself, he would have been looked at as a major success story coming from Japan to the Red Sox. After all, he did contribute to the Red Sox’s 2007 World Championship and compiled an 18-3 record in his second season.

Still, scouts are realizing Darvish is different from his Japanese predecessors. He does not have a wacky delivery. He does not have a secret mystery “gyro-ball.”

Instead, his pitching mechanics are very similar to that of a typical American-born pitcher, and he has a sturdy build. At six feet five inches, Darvish has drawn comparisons in pitching technique and stature to Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, the same pitcher that beat C.J. Wilson in game one of the World Series.

Where Darvish truly differentiates himself from the rest of the Japanese born pitchers, though, is in his heritage. Born to an Iranian father who received his education in the United States and worked as a ball boy for the Seattle Seahawks in the late 1970s, Darvish has a much more American-centric mind than any of the previous Japanese stars. He is married to an actress, was suspended in high school after being caught smoking a cigarette at a casino, and has posed nude for a popular Japanese women’s magazine. He is much more of a celebrity in Japan than any baseball player before him.

Darvish’s move to America should be more seamless than those of his predecessors for multiple reasons. First, with aunts and uncles living in the States, Darvish has a whole network of support here. Second, Darvish is young. Age, in the past, has been a main deterrent from teams offering money to Japanese pitchers. Because baseball players in Japan are taught to overuse their arms in training, most pitchers hit their primes at an early age and develop arm problems faster than American trained pitchers.

After all, Matsuzaka gained his fame from pitching 250 pitches in a 17-inning complete game the day after pitching a nine-inning shutout. Fortunately, Darvish is only 25 and has had a far less taxing career than Matsuzaka had when he entered the MLB. Career expectancies, even for pitchers in Japan last into their mid-30’s, mean Darvish should still have a productive decade in the majors if he comes this off-season.

For his sake, with minimal pitching competition on the market, he might not be able to afford not to.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel from 11/11/2011

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