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December 20, 2011

The BP Broadside

Jersey Scrooge to Darvish: Drop Dead

by Steven Goldman

We could all feel very silly in a few short months. As I write these words, the world, or at least the fraction of the world that lives its life on Twitter, is eagerly awaiting the news of which team submitted the winning bid on Yu Darvish. No doubt by the time you read this, the news will be known. I’m not sure that it will change very much, because the risk of post-Christmas letdown and buyer’s remorse is still the same regardless of which uniform the pitcher ultimately wears.

Indeed, as I wrote the preceding paragraph, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote that the Texas Rangers have won the rights to Darvish. This is perfect, because the Rangers were the team of David Clyde, one of those examples of post-Christmas letdown I referred to above. Now, before the comments section fills up with responses saying, “That is a poor analogy! Darvish is a seasoned pro! Clyde was only 18 and skipped right from high school to the bigs! Of course he was disappointing!” allow me to preempt at least some of you:

Some plans have a greater chance than others of working out. Very few are predestined to fail. If the Rangers had correctly scouted Clyde, there was no reason why an aggressive promotion couldn’t have worked out. Sure, the only 18-year-old that has pitched with real success in the big leagues since the 19th century is Bob Feller, but that doesn’t mean Clyde couldn’t have been the second. The list of 19-year-olds to do well in the majors is long and distinguished and includes relatively recent pitchers such as Dwight Gooden and Felix Hernandez. Perhaps that one-year difference is crucial, but so few teams have risked it that we can’t know for sure—the complete list of 18-year-olds to pitch in the big leagues from 1970 to present is all of four hurlers long, and none have come since 1978, perhaps because of the chilling effect of two of those failed high-school-to-the-majors experiments, Clyde and Mike Morgan. Schrödinger-like, the possibility existed that they could have come out of the box as live aces instead of DOA doormats (Morgan did eventually become a fine pitcher).

Conversely, there is the saga of Scott Ruffcorn, a first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1991 who tore through the minor leagues with a record not unlike Darvish’s. Through 1994, when the right-hander was 24, he had a 2.68 ERA in 561 innings across all levels of the minors, from Rookie ball to Triple-A. He had allowed 442 hits, walked 169, and struck out 529. He was the real deal. Yet, in several different major-league trials, he went 0-8 with an 8.57 ERA in 30 games. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, life is just like a box of crap. You open it expecting crap. Most of the time you get crap. If sometimes you don’t, act pleasantly surprised, but remember that your chances of getting crap next time just went up.

Darvish should be very good. He had a career 1.92 RA in a league that had a 4.04 RA during that time. His statistics speak for themselves, and apparently major-league scouts are sufficiently convinced that he’s the real deal that teams are willing to wager upward of $50 million dollars just for the right to talk with him. Chances are he will be very good, as that many experts usually aren’t wrong. (Though sometimes they are. “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” Lord Kelvin said in 1895.) Yet, it is worth remembering that until Darvish has actually pitched successfully in the majors, everything is speculation. Don’t give him the 2012 Cy Young Award until you have actually seen him pitch. There is every possibility that in a few months we will all be wondering what all the excitement was about.

By “we” I mean “you.” I am immune to such things, being nearly 2.5 times as cynical as I depict myself as being in this column. I know that in sounding this faint and waffling note of caution I am raining on the Darvishmania parade and will be a pariah, if I am not already (stop egging my tarantula, you kids), but history tells me that as much as I hate that hoary old cliché that baseball is a game of failure, the truth is that baseball is a game of failure, as is everything else, which is why things didn’t work out on Easter Island. For example, if you look at the panorama of baseball trades, not just any one trade in isolation, not Babe Ruth-for-$100,000 and the mortgage on Nuff Ced McGreevy’s truss, or Willie McGee straight up for Jack the Ripper, you find a whole lot of nothing. Most deals neither work out nor don’t work out, but resolve in exchanges of nothing for nothing, and all the pieces go “poof” as if they never existed—unless George Steinbrenner was involved in the deal, in which case all of the pieces involved unite, Voltron-style, and become Jay Buhner. I have learned not to be too excited about any particular deal until it provides a reason for excitement.

Parenthetically, this is the reason why no movie is as good as its trailer, your beautiful wife is lousy in bed, and your dog is secretly plotting your murder. The Rangers may have improved themselves, but perhaps they have not; there are adjustments Darvish must make to American pitching patterns (more aggressive), American hitters (more consistently powerful), American strike zones, and American usage patterns. He probably will, but he also might not.  

In closing, allow me to tell you that there are lumps of coal in all your stockings, said same lumps of goal are creating greenhouse gasses, and none of us will survive 2012 anyway, so where Darvish goes really doesn’t matter. Brian Cashman knows this, and that’s why he didn’t make a serious bid, thus ensuring himself Executive of the Year honors as well as the Nobel Prize in Economics. Merry Christmas, everyone. Now get lost.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

12 comments have been left for this article.

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