What'd Yu Brang?
January 18, 2012

The Rangers completed their odyssey to augment their rotation today by signing Japanese starting pitcher Yu Darvish to a contract over 6 years worth in the neighborhood of $60 million.  In addition, they will give the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish's old team, a posting fee of $51.7 million.  There has been a mistaken assumption that one can simply add the two numbers together to get the total value of the contract, when in fact we don't know how much of the posting fee can be deferred or how it counts against a team's current salary or how it can be amortized to lower the actual cost.  Suffice it to say that the Rangers are paying a pretty tidy sum to roster Darvish, somewhere in the neighborhood of what the top 20 pitchers in all of baseball get.

So for the Rangers what does this mean?  Couldn't they have achieved the same thing by signing Prince Fielder?  The short answer is no, they could not have.  First, Prince Fielder would have cost much more per season and in years of contract to sign.  The talk is something in the neighborhood of 6-8 years and upwards of $200 million.  Secondly, the Rangers problem wasn't scoring runs; it was preventing them, particularly in the playoffs.  The marginal gain in offense they would get by adding Fielder (over their current first baseman Mitch Moreland) to their line-up is not as significant as adding a much better pitcher (than say Alexi Ogando or Neftali Feliz who might be more valuable in the pen) to prevent runs being scored against them.  Essentially Darvish replaces (or improves) the innings lost from the free agent defection of CJ Wilson but for much less money than would have been needed to land Fielder (and ironically for only slightly more than would have been necessary to bring back Wilson).  That's not to say that the Rangers won't also sign Fielder, but if it's a case of either/or, Darvish was the more efficient use of money. 

Currently, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee are the highest paid pitchers in baseball, making roughly $24 million per year, average annual value.  Behind them are Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Carlos Zambrano, Barry Zito, Jake Peavy, Jered Weaver and soon to be quite well-off Tim Lincecum who is sure to come away from his arbitration hearing with at least a contract worth $17 million for this season.  Following those guys are Justin Verlander, John Lackey, AJ Burnett, Felix Hernandez, CJ Wilson and Derek Lowe, all making at least $15 million per year.  I point this out because it's an interesting mix of the very best pitchers in the game along with some contracts that have not worked out well at all.  It's like there isn't any real middle ground.  But this is now the neighborhood that Yu Darvish finds himself in (looking only at average annual value) even though he himself will be making much less.

So how good is he?  Is he worth that kind of coin?

The simple answer is yes.  Oh yes.  He is certainly the best pitcher to ever come from Japan.  That's not an opinion; that's the empirical truth.  While Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka both had very good pedigrees before plying their trade in the States, neither of them were as good as Darvish was in Japan.  He posted better ERAs, better WHIPs, better control and equivalent strikeout rates for a longer stretch of time.  In Matsuzaka's best season in Japan he posted a 2.13 ERA; in each of the last five years Darvish has posted an ERA under 2.00.  In fact, his worst season during that span was a 1.88 ERA.  In Nomo's best full season he struck out 10.66 batters per nine innings; last year Darvish struck out 10.70 per nine and he did it while walking only 1.35 batters per nine.  Nomo never achieved even a third of that kind of control, and Matsuzaka's best season in Japan was 1.64 and he never struck out better than 10 batters per nine. From a scouting standpoint Darvish has better velocity, a more complete repertoire, better control, greater size to handle the workload, he's much better at keeping the ball in the park and his straight-forward sound mechanics don't rely on any extra deception for success.  No twists, no hesitations, no tricks.  Some have worried about the decrease in rest between starts that seems to wear out Japanese imports, but eight times this past season Darvish pitched on less than the usual 6 days rest and he posted the best season of his career.  Unless the Texas heat actually melts him, I don't see this being an issue.  Like I said, Darvish is better in every way than Nomo and Matsuzaka.  And both of those guys were 5 WAR pitchers for at least one season, which is another way of saying they were 5 wins better than a replacement level pitcher. 

And how good is that?  Well, normally a 5 WAR pitcher would be in the conversation for one of the ten best in the game for just about any season dating back to 1890, when the pitching mound was only 55 feet away from the plate and pitchers routinely threw more than 500 innings in a season.  There are a few exceptional years here and there, like last year, where pitching was so dominant that a 5 WAR would only be good for top 20, but in most years it's good enough for the ten best. 

Darvish's fastball averages around 94 mph.  It varies from 92-95, but I've seen him hike it up to 97 and 98 so he does have the extra gear.  Last year in the majors there were only 16 pitchers who possessed a fastball that averaged better than 93 mph and pitched a minimum of 160 innings.  Of those, only Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Alexi Ogando and Jordan Zimmerman walked fewer than 2.5 hitters per nine innings.  Stephen Strasburg would qualify in both groups as well but didn't pitch enough innings coming back from his surgery to meet the qualification standard.  Further freeing up the innings restriction adds Juan Nicasio and Matt Moore to the list.  Allowing for 0.1 more walks per nine brings in David Price and Felix Hernandez.  It's not a coincidence that both of last year's Cy Young awards winners are on this list as well as a number of future Cy Young award winners.  This is the company that Yu Darvish is in.   So if you were a GM looking to add a top starting pitcher and a David Price or a Jordan Zimmerman came on the open market, how much would you have to pay to gain his services?  The Rangers just showed you.

Something else to consider when trying to predict Darvish's fortunes this season: the competition.  Yes, the Rangers play in a good park for hitters (although it's been noted already he does a very good job of keeping the ball in the park) and the Angels are much improved with the addition of Albert Pujols, but... the Angels are still not much better than an average offense.  Last year they were below average by just about any statistical measure.  Pujols is a huge upgrade over Mark Trumbo but he alone is not enough to make up the 200 or so runs needed to put the Angels into the upper echelon of AL offenses.  Then there's Seattle, who is still woeful offensively even with the addition of a talented rookie DH.  Oakland is worse as well with the free agent defection of their only legitimate power hitter this winter.  So two positively horrible offenses to face many times due to the imbalanced schedule.  Last year CJ Wilson, the guy Darvish is ostensibly replacing, faced those two teams a total of ten times.  Add to the mix that the Orioles are still pretty anemic, as are the Twins, Indians and White Sox.  With Victor Martinez likely out for the year the Tigers are a little less imposing and the Royals enjoyed career years out of Melky Cabrera and Alex Gordon last year so it's not like they are going to take a huge step forward offensively either.  Better yes, but probably still pretty average.  Likewise, the Rays are pretty average offensively as well.  So about the only teams that will really test Darvish will be the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays and there's a decent enough chance he'll only face them once, maybe twice.  Wilson faced those three teams a total of four times in 2011.  Honestly, with the run support they'll get and the competition they'll face I don't know that there has ever been a better time to be a Rangers starting pitcher.

In fantasy baseball, a starting pitcher like that routinely fetches a $20 bid.  If I were playing in a AL only re-draft league this year I would be ecstatic to roster Darvish and Matt Moore for a combined amount of anything less than $40.  The last time two rookies this good came into the same league was probably 2003 when Dontrelle Willis and Brandon Webb took the NL by storm.  Any team that managed to nab both Webb and Willis that season probably finished in the money.  Both of these guys are better.  The difference between these two is that while Moore might have to prove this spring that he belongs in the rotation and force the Rays to trade or demote someone to get him his starts, Darvish will be guaranteed his.