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October 31, 2011

Resident Fantasy Genius

Yu Got the Look

by Derek Carty

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Rumors abound that Yu Darvish, perhaps the most hyped player to come from Japan since Daisuke Matsuzaka, will be posted by his Nippon Pro Baseball team this winter. If that happens, Major League Baseball teams will have the right to bid on exclusive negotiating rights with Darvish in the hopes of securing his services for their rotation. This possibility has the blogosphere abuzz, with many a writer speculating on where he’ll end up or how he’ll fit in with a blogger’s favorite team.

But the big question on everyone’s mind is how much of this buzz is merely hype and how much is legitimate. As Michael Street has shown, Japanese pitchers (particularly starters) have a very spotty track record when they come across the Pacific, and even a guy like Matsuzaka only managed one above-average season before giving way to injuries and ineffectiveness.

Figuring out how well a Japanese pitcher will do is no easy task, but let's give it a shot. We'll start by looking at Darvish's numbers, then talk with some scouts, and end with how he would fit in with the various teams interested in signing him.

By the Numbers
Yu Darvish’s Stats

Year

Age

IP

ERA

K%

BB%

HR/CON

BABIP

2008

21

200.2

1.88

28%

5.8%

2.2%

0.254

2009

22

182

1.73

24%

6.5%

1.9%

0.230

2010

23

202

1.78

28%

5.9%

0.9%

0.292

2011

24

232

1.44

31%

4.1%

0.9%

0.266

As we would expect from a pitcher with so much media attention, his numbers are stellar. His ERA hasn’t been above 2.00 since 2006, and he posts the kind of high-K, low-walk numbers you look for in a pitcher.

Darvish’s numbers look particularly excellent in 2011, but when talking with a scout over in Asia, he cautioned that they may be inflated thanks to drastic differences in league averages between 2010 and 2011. With no new stadiums, no new import power players, and no drop-off in velocity, the scout pointed to a new baseball as the reason. Prior to the 2011 season, after receiving feedback from a number of players, NPB adopted a new ball with “different physical properties” that was more similar to the balls that are used in international competitions like the WBC (World Baseball Classic). The new ball seems to play with different aerodynamics, most notably traveling shorter distances. This is borne out predominantly in the home-run department, as homers in Darvish’s Pacific League have fallen 38 percent from 2010 to 2011 on a per contact basis. That’s enormous!  In the scout’s words, “That's a more dramatic [change] than MLB saw with the 'roid boom or any other spike.” The ball change didn’t just affect homers, though. Here’s how stats changed in Darvish’s Japanese Pacific League from 2010 to 2011:

NPB PL Changes in League Average from 2010 to 2011

ERA

K%

BB%

HR/CON

BABIP

-25%

-3%

-20%

-38%

-8%

Because there were also drastic decreases in ERA and walks, it’s hard to directly compare Darvish’s 2011 season—his most recent and, thus, most important—to his past seasons to see how he is developing. To account for the Jonah Hill effect Japanese baseball has experienced, here are Darvish's stats for the past few seasons in the form of percent better than average. So for 2011, his ERA was 106 percent better (i.e. lower) than league-average.

Yu Darvish’s Stats as Percentage Better than Average

Year

Age

IP

ERA

K%

BB%

HR/CON

BABIP

2008

21

200.2

108%

54%

21%

38%

16%

2009

22

182

133%

30%

20%

75%

30%

2010

23

202

122%

48%

30%

213%

4%

2011

24

232

106%

73%

51%

108%

4%

Here, we can see that Darvish’s improvements in strikeout and walk rate were not solely attributable to the new ball. In fact, he made some very large improvements this season above and beyond the effects of the new ball. He’s been roughly league-average in terms of BABIP over the past couple of seasons after being quite a bit better than average previously, but I wouldn’t consider that much of a concern given his dominance everywhere else. While his home-run rate is much worse this season than it was in 2010, it’s still twice as good as a league-average player’s and a marked improvement over where he was at before 2010.

Scouting Darvish
Of course, numbers can’t tell the whole story, especially for a player coming over from Japan. To get the scouting scoop, I recently spoke with some scouts who have seen Darvish pitch over the past few seasons.

Darvish is said to have an ideal pitcher's frame with a good mechanics and an easy delivery. Many scouts rave about his stuff, and like many Japanese pitchers, Darvish throws a lot of pitches, and he likes to tinker with new ones. Unlike other Japanese pitchers, though, most of Darvish's are above-average with a few potential all-star caliber offerings.  He throws his four-seamer in the low- to mid-90s and can crank it up to 97 or 98 mph, and he throws his two-seamer in the low 90s to generate grounders.  He also throws a plus cutter, a good forkball, and two sliders—a tighter, biting slider in the mid-80s and a high-70s, slurvier pitch. His lesser offerings are his change-up and curve, which he varies the tilt, rotation, and velocity on. All told, the scouts I spoke with were in agreement that Darvish definitely has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation MLB pitcher.  It’ll be very interesting to see which pitches he takes with him to America, if he drops any.

What’s cool is that we actually have some PITCHf/x data on Darvish from the World Baseball Classic, which seems to be in agreement with the scouts (and it’s from 2009, so he’s only gotten better since then). Harry Pavlidis had a great write-up of it at Beyond the Boxscore, so I’ll direct you there for a more complete look. Essentially, Darvish flashed a four-seamer that averaged 95 mph with a lot of rise, a two-seamer with great tail, a good cutter, a less impressive curve, and the two distinct, quality sliders that the scouts mentioned.

Command and Concerns
While the sky may be the limit for Darvish, success isn’t all about stuff, especially for pitchers coming over from Japan. There are some legitimate concerns that could hold Darvish back, even if only initially. From what I’ve heard, the biggest adjustment he’s going to need to make is with his command. One scout graded it out as 50/65, which means that his command is merely league-average at present—not top-of-the-rotation caliber. Great stuff will allow a pitcher to post stellar numbers against lesser competition—like one faces in Japan—but if the pitcher’s command is a problem, he could become exposed against major-league hitters. That’s not to say that Darvish’s command is necessarily a problem; it’s just not up to the quality of his stuff, which is outstanding.

Still, as a result, the scouts think that there could be some ups and downs at first, performance-wise. What Darvish has going for him, though, is a reputation for being a hard-worker, and he is well-liked by his teammates. Statheads often scoff at concepts like “work ethic,” but it truly is a very important thing, especially for younger players or those, like Darvish, who will be entering a new environment. The fact that Darvish is committed to improving his craft is a good sign as to his ability to make the necessary adjustments, such as with his command.

Making the Transition
The most successful Japanese-born MLB pitchers are the ones who can pitch aggressively in the zone for strikes. Since a lot of Japanese pitchers work backward by U.S. pitching standards and don’t go after hitters as aggressively as their American counterparts, they can experience trouble in when they cross the Pacific. While Darvish is not out of the woods yet, this was of greater concern prior to the 2011 season, since the scouts believed he was much more aggressive this season. Essentially, the scouts thought Darvish was gearing up for the challenges U.S. baseball will present and had shown an aptitude for making these kinds of adjustments.

Then, of course, we have the adjustments that are inherent to any Japanese import and are nearly impossible to predict: new workload, adjusting to two days more rest, new competition, different ball, cultural differences, language barriers, etc. One scout showed optimism in Darvish overcoming these obstacles, noting that he is “an elite pitcher who has an elite resume, so it may follow that he has an elite level of professionalism and will handle the differences well.”

While there are going to be adjustments for Darvish to make, he has the tools and the drive to succeed. In the aformentioned Michael Street’s Asian Equation series, he noted that, “Those [Japanese pitchers] who succeed as starters typically pitch aggressively, have good fastballs, and adjust to the conditioning and workout schedule without incurring injury—the same tools any MLB pitcher would need.” Darvish certainly has the fastball, he’s been pitching more aggressively, and he has the work ethic and clean mechanics to help avoid injuries, so he seems as good a bet as any to find success in Major League Baseball.

Possible Landing Spots
While Darvish has said that nothing is decided yet, and one of the scouts told me that there are rumors overseas that he won’t end up being posted, the scout didn’t buy them and thinks Darvish will indeed be coming to the States. In the seemingly likely event that Darvish is posted, Joel Sherman speculated that the favorites to land him are (in order) the Rangers, Blue Jays, Nationals, Mariners, and Royals. The Yankees have also been connected with Darvish, reportedly preferring him to free agent C.J. Wilson. The table below lists the five frontrunners and the Yankees along with their park factors for four statistics and a crude measure of their offensive and defensive support (scale of one-to-four “+”s). I’ve also included a weighted average for each category using a 6/5/4/3/2/1 scheme.

Team

K PF

BB PF

HR PF

BABIP PF

Offense

Defense

Rangers

0.93

1.00

1.19

1.01

++++

+++

Blue Jays

1.02

0.99

1.08

1.03

+++

++

Nationals

0.93

0.96

1.08

1.00

++

++

Mariners

1.10

1.00

1.03

0.99

+

++

Royals

0.94

1.01

0.82

1.00

++

+++

Yankees

1.00

1.00

1.10

1.00

++++

+++

Weighted Average

0.98

0.99

1.08

1.01

2.8 +s

2.4 +s

Inevitable Comparisons
While the front-running Rangers would likely provide the worst park for Darvish, inflating homers and deflating strikeouts, their offense is elite and their defense is above average. Yes, word is that the Yankees are not among the most likely teams to sign Darvish, but the Bronx Bombers would provide a neutral park (aside from some home-run inflation) and similarly ideal offensive and defensive support to the Rangers. The best park for Darvish’s fantasy value would be in either Seattle or Kansas City, and it may come as a surprise that the Royals would be a decent destination overall. With a young, upside-laden offense and a young, upside-realized bullpen to go with a quality defense, Darvish would have quite the environment and supporting cast. On average, though, his potential parks grade out to neutral, with the exception being long flies since there are a number of homer-inflating parks in the mix. His mix also averages out to provide a good offense and an above average defense, so Darvish is definitely looking like an interesting fantasy pick for 2012.

Given Darvish’s home country and the exorbitant amount it’s likely going to cost a team to acquire him (between posting fees and his contract), we’re bound to hear comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka over the next few months. While these comparisons wouldn’t be completely unfounded given Darvish’s high strikeouts but less-than-stellar command, I don’t think they’ll be very fair. For one, Matsuzaka didn’t have the fastball Darvish does, averaging just 92 mph in his first major-league season. Though the difference in balls might have something to do with it, Darvish threw significantly harder using MLB-approved balls during the WBC in 2009. BP2008 said of Dice-K:

It seems silly to invest $100 million in a player and then try to change him, but the Sox did that with Matsuzaka. They limited his repertoire and attempted to adjust his training regimen to major league standards. In return, they got a pitcher with less effectiveness, less command, and who wilted in the second half.

In BP2009, we said “Matsuzaka would nibble with pitch after pitch rather than putting the hitters away or forcing them into contact”—something we've established Japanese pitchers have a habit of doing and fail as a result of. As long as Darvish’s major-league team doesn’t try to change him too much, and as long as he continues with the efforts he made this year in being aggressive and not nibbling, I think he’ll wind up quite a bit better than Matsuzaka with true star potential.

One of the scouts said he doesn't think he'll be worth the nearly $110 million it'll likely cost a team to acquire Darvish, and another warned that there are still big adjustments he'll need to make, but if fantasy owners prove gunshy in embracing another Japanese import, Darvish could still come at a bargain in roto leagues. And he'll have even more value in keeper leagues, since the scouts I spoke with think he'll eventually be a top-of-the-rotation major league starter.

I’ll be sure to check in on Darvish when he ultimately signs somewhere, but fantasy owners should absolutely pencil him onto their sleeper lists for the time being. I could definitely see grabbing him in the 12th or 13th round of a standard 12-team mixed league and expecting a decent profit.

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