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April 17, 2012

Western Front

They Came from Across the Sea

by Geoff Young

Two high-profile international free agents came to the American League West this year. The two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers won negotiating rights (with a $51.7 million bid) to Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish in December 2011 and signed him to a six-year, $56 million deal the following month. Meanwhile, the small-market Oakland A's surprised everyone in February by landing Cuban center fielder/Internet sensation Yoenis Cespedes at four years, $36 million.

Darvish was the better-known quantity, having generated buzz well in advance of his U.S. debut, and was expected to contribute right away. Cespedes came with more questions attached, and it wasn't certain that he would break camp with the big club. But he did, and he made an immediate impact, launching a home run in his big-league debut (amusingly enough, played in Japan).

For an encore, in his first game on the North American continent, Cespedes belted a 462-foot homer to dead center at Oakland on a cool, damp evening. It was a monstrous shot that, by his own admission, Cespedes admired a bit too long:

I followed the ball, but I don’t like that to do that again. I come from Cuba, where it’s a little less quality games, so we do that. But here I don’t want to do that.

Seattle's Jason Vargas, who served up the bomb, may not find such sentiments endearing, but it's hard not to appreciate Cespedes' candor in realizing and owning up to his mistake. It's even harder not to appreciate the home run, which was a treat to watch for everyone except Vargas and perhaps hinted at what we can expect going forward. As Kevin Goldstein noted on Twitter:

When I said Cespedes could hit 20-25 home runs, I felt that was a pretty strong statement. Now I look conservative.

Darvish, meanwhile, made waves of his own this spring by dismissing a booming double off the bat of “underrated” Padres outfielder Will Venable, noting, “The wind helped that one. I don't think he really squared it up.”

It has been speculated that something was lost in the translation, which seems plausible. And besides, as with Cespedes, you don't want a multimillion-dollar investment believing that he's anything other than one of the best in the world at what he does (and being right in his belief). If these guys are as good as advertised, they won't need to talk so much—they can, as Bobbi Flekman would say, just smile and look smart.

* * *

Darvish is the latest in an ever-expanding line of players to jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB, a wave that began with Hideo Nomo in 1995. (Well, that's when the current wave began; the history is much richer but beyond the scope of this article—read Michael Street's excellent work for a more complete background). Many of the most prominent players (Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Akinori Otsuka, Takashi Saito, Hiroki Kuroda) signed with teams in the Western portion of the United States. Others, such as Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka, settled further to the east. And these are just the big names. Many others have been scattered throughout the big leagues and enjoyed varying degrees of success (again, I would defer to Street's work on starters, relievers, and position players).

And stealing from another of Street's fine articles, we get a list of the best players to come from Japan, as measured by WARP (entering 2012):

Player

WARP

Ichiro Suzuki

48.0

Hideo Nomo

25.6

Hideki Matsui

23.2

Takashi Saito

8.4

Hiroki Kuroda

7.8

Tomokazu Ohka

7.7

Daisuke Matsuzaka

6.7

Kosuke Fukudome

6.3

Kenji Johjima

6.0

Shigetoshi Hasegawa

5.7

From 1995 to 2011, a total of 49 players born in Japan made their major-league debuts. Removing Dave Roberts, Steve Randolph, Jeff McCurry, and a few others brings the number to 42, which constitutes roughly one percent of the big-league population during that period.

There have been a few stars: Suzuki, Nomo, and Matsui. And there have been some colossal disappointments—Hideki Irabu, Kazuo Matsui, and Kei Igawa among them—although this is no different from the amateur draft. Sure, they're established professionals, but the point is that some guys make it in MLB and others don't. Ken Griffey Jr. and Matt Bush both were taken first overall in the draft; this doesn't put them on equal footing any more than the fact that Suzuki and Irabu came from Japan does.

Nomo and Suzuki also drew crowds. The Rangers, coming off two straight World Series appearances, don't necessarily need help in that regard, although it never hurts to bring on a curiosity. Still, at the price the Rangers paid to procure his services, Darvish is being counted on to be more than a mere curiosity. His job is not only to entertain but also to get Texas back to a third World Series, and hopefully win a ring.

As Maury Brown noted back in December, Darvish's presence in Arlington should have a profound impact on the Rangers' international marketing efforts. Brown pointed out that they are “bringing in incremental new revenues from Japanese sponsorships that have never been available to the club,” which in turn help pay for Darvish's contract—and possibly a great many other things.

On the eve of Darvish's debut, Rangers COO Rick George spoke of such opportunities:

It's hard to measure at this point. But there are three additional sponsors we didn't have last year specifically because of Yu Darvish.

Meanwhile, back on the mound, PECOTA projects Darvish will post exceptional numbers (3.28 ERA, 4.1 WARP). When Kevin Goldstein asked scouts whether they would prefer Darvish to a variety of established pitchers, the player they were split on was Zack Greinke. That is a high equilibrium point.

Darvish's regular-season debut, at home against a Seattle offense that tripped all over itself in 2011, didn't go as well as hoped. But his teammates scored 11 runs and he hung around for the win, and in fact improved as the game progressed:

Inn

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

Pit

Str

1

4

4

4

0

3

2

42

22

2

2

1

1

0

0

1

13

7

3

1

0

0

0

0

1

19

11

4

0

0

0

0

0

0

11

5

5

0

0

0

0

0

1

13

8

6

1

0

0

0

1

0

12

6

As Jason Parks observed on Twitter during that first inning (which also included a wild pitch):

Command will be Darvish's biggest problem early on. He has near elite stuff, but he also has the weight of a country on his shoulders.

And a little later:

This inning could be the best thing for Darvish's development. Failure and response to failure is the backbone of baseball.

Given how Darvish finished his night, it's difficult to argue with Professor Parks' conclusion:

Important start for Darvish. He looked shaky to start, then slowly steadied himself. You have to love [the] poise. Impressive.

Darvish's manager, Ron Washington, offered similar comments:

It's not how you start, but how you finish. He finished pretty good. And we do feel it will get better.

Positive spin? Perhaps, but the numbers don't lie. Darvish didn't allow an extra-base hit and really was his own worst enemy. Beyond the walks and wild pitch, he also hit a batter and went to eight bazillion three-ball counts. Sure, he needed 42 pitches to navigate his first big-league inning, but then he got through the next 4 2/3 using 68, a respectable 14.6 pitches per inning.

Darvish himself indicated that he was rushing, which catcher Mike Napoli corroborated (our own pitching mechanics expert, Doug Thorburn, provides a more technical and complete explanation). Rangers owner Nolan Ryan likewise attributed the rough start to nerves, sharing Washington's belief in the importance of how Darvish handled himself facing adversity:

...he battled and hung in there. He looked like a totally different pitcher at the end of the start. I think it was important that he got the chance to stay in there and battle and it's even more important for him that he did.

Of course, the first inning did happen and cannot be ignored altogether, but given the context we'll call it an aberration. If this becomes a pattern, that's a different story, but for now I'm satisfied with the “weight of a country” explanation.

Darvish certainly drew well. The locally televised broadcast beat “Dancing With the Stars” (which I'm told is a very popular show among people who like such things) in ratings, and 42,003 showed up at the ballpark on a Monday evening. COO George noted that this is much larger than usual for the Monday after Opening Day. Here is how the Rangers have drawn over the past decade on the first Monday after the home opener (with Tuesday's crowd and the previous season's record included to provide context):

Year*

WPct**

Monday

Tuesday

Attendance

Starting Pitcher

Attendance

Starting Pitcher

2004

.438

18,156

Colby Lewis

20,112

Mickey Callaway

2005

.549

20,939

Kenny Rogers

22,146

Pedro Astacio

2007

.494

21,547

Brandon McCarthy

23,897

Jamey Wright

2009

.488

12,184

Vicente Padilla

14,041

Brandon McCarthy

2011

.556

37,618

Greg Holland

30,953

Alexi Ogando

2012

.593

42,003

Yu Darvish

25,753

Neftali Feliz

*The Rangers were on the road in 2006 and 2010, and had an off day in 2003 and 2008.

**Previous season's winning percentage.

Acknowledging that some of the improvement is likely due to the fact that the Rangers are two-time defending AL champions, it's worth noting that the drop (if any) from that first Monday after the home opener to the Tuesday is typically nowhere near as severe as what the Rangers experienced last week. In other words, Darvish had an impact.

* * *

The A's, on the other hand, need all the help they can get in terms of bringing folks out to the ballpark. With the current monstrosity in Oakland that is Mount Davis and perpetual questions surrounding a possible move to San Jose, the franchise has enjoyed better times. Billy Beane's glory days are in the rear-view mirror, and the little engine that could has stopped moving.

The Cespedes signing may have been viewed as a gimmick on the basis of his famous workouts, but the guy clearly has talent. Besides, it's not like the A's couldn't use a gimmick or three. And although Beane's willingness to dole out large sums of money (which you will recall, from years of having it drilled into your head, isn't easily done in that small market) doubtless surprised some folks, if the early returns are any indication (and who knows if they are), that contract should pay for itself in short order. As Ben Lindbergh pointed out at the time, Cespedes is younger and cheaper than Michael Cuddyer, hardly an exciting player—his hot start notwithstanding.

Cespedes gives fans everywhere a reason to watch a team that is largely unwatchable. He has people outside of Oakland talking about a club that one four-letter network didn't even bother previewing in spring training. His first seven games included six hits (three homers, two doubles, and a single that didn't come until extra innings of Game 7), three HBP, and 11 strikeouts. And despite occasional misadventures on defense, A's skipper Bob Melvin plans to leave him in center field for now. Whatever else Cespedes might be, he is not boring.

PECOTA also expects him to be good, projecting a .281 TAv and 3.0 WARP. In Kevin Goldstein's poll of scouts, the equilibrium point for Cespedes was Arizona center fielder Chris Young. Not bad.

In Oakland's market, with a team that isn't expected to do much, positive buzz is a good thing. Even after a few games, Cespedes has made the A's relevant in a way that they weren't a few months earlier (unless you count Brad Pitt's portrayal of Beane in a movie). He must sustain his success, of course (forgive those of us who suffered through Ruben Rivera for maintaining a healthy skepticism), but this is a promising and exciting start. At the very least, Cespedes should be better than his interpreter, former A's pitcher Ariel Prieto, who made his big-league debut the same year Nomo did.

Speaking of which, since 1995, roughly the same number of players have come to MLB as from Japan. How have those that preceded Cespedes fared? Here are the top 10 by WARP, again through 2011:

Player

WARP

Livan Hernandez

36.9

Orlando Hernandez

19.0

Yunel Escobar

15.8

Alexei Ramirez

12.3

Jose Contreras

11.2

Rolando Arrojo

7.7

Kendrys Morales

5.1

Danys Baez

4.9

Yuniesky Betancourt

4.1

Eli Marrero

4.1

Of course, this list excludes the greats that never came to the United States, such as Omar Linares, Pedro Luis Lazo, and Jose Abreu.

* * *

Darvish's numbers in Japan were ridiculous. In five full seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, he won 73 percent of his decisions and fashioned a 1.72 ERA. He didn't allow hits (6.1 H/9) or walks (1.9 BB/9) and racked up the strikeouts (9.5 K/9).

Cespedes was no less dominant in Cuba, hitting .319/.403/.585 in eight seasons with Granma Alazanes. PECOTA shaves a good chunk off those totals, projecting him to hit .267/.308/.471. Clay Davenport's translations are slightly less optimistic, but in the same general ballpark.

The Rangers and A's don't meet until a two-game series at Arlington on May 16 and 17. When they do, it could give the world its first opportunity to see Darvish battle Cespedes. There have been near misses in the past. Darvish worked four innings against Cuba in the 2008 Olympics, but Cespedes was not on that team. The following year, in two WBC games at Petco Park in San Diego, Cespedes went 3-for-7 against Japan, but Darvish did not pitch.

When they finally do meet, it will be a joy to witness—not only as a human interest story, of two men with radically different backgrounds coming together to share the same stage, but also as a great baseball moment between two elite players who, a couple of decades ago, might never have had the opportunity to compete against one another on said stage. If that isn't good for everyone, I don't know what is.

5 comments have been left for this article.

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