It’s been reported that Yu Darvish, pitching ace for Japan’s Nippon-Ham Fighters*, will become available to MLB teams by the posting process. This means the team must pay twice – once for the right to talk to his agent, and again for the actual contract. There’s no risk to a team submitting a bid because you don’t pay the post if the player won’t agree to a contract. This happened to Oakland last year when they successfully bid on the right to negotiate with Hisashi Iwakuma with a $19.1M post, but failed to reach an agreement with pitcher.
For some U.S. fans, this has been a long time coming. The 25 year-old Darvish is the best pitcher in Japan by a longshot. What that portends for his MLB performance is a potentially $100M question. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the last Sawamura Award (Japan's CYA) winner to come to the U.S., had two very good years for Boston before injuries (perhaps exacerabated by a communication breakdown with Boston) derailed his MLB career.
The Replacement Level Yankee Blog has done yeoman's work in looking at the NPB stats of Daisuke, Darvish, and several other imports. Read the entire piece, but the takeaway is that Daisuke's ERA and FIP in the three seasons before arriving were in the low and mid-2's. Darvish's FIP over the past three seasons? 1.88. Yowzas.
Beyond the numbers, what are the critical factors for Darvish's transition?
1. Stuff. Darvish reportedly throws a nasty slider and a fastball that sits around 90-93 but can get up to 97. Is it better than Daisuke's stuff? I'm not sure, but back in 2008 Bobby Valentine seemed to think so. The slider looks unhittable, but the fastball velocity is nothing special. I believe Daisuke was supposed to have thrown harder when he arrived. Daisuke was also famous for his broad repertoire of pitches that would keep American hitters constantly guessing. From what I've read Darvish doesn't throw quite as many types of pitches, going to his curve and changeup to complement his fastball and slider. According to his Wiki page he dropped his screwball after it contributed to a 2006 shoulder injury.
For whichever team makes the winning bid, I hope for their sake that they've had multiple scouts observe him extensively, both live and video. It's hard to overstate the importance of scouting here because we don't have a great handle on how the raw stats themselves translate from NPB to MLB.
2. Strike zone. This could be rolled into the first category, but I mention it again because Daisuke has been a notorious nibbler since joining the Red Sox. Is it tentativeness, or did he enjoy a wider strike zone in Japan? And if it's the latter, why didn't he adjust sooner? Reports on the command and control of his slider and fastball are probably the most critical pieces of information in the overall evaluation.
3. Age and workload. At 25, Darvish will be the youngest NPB pitcher to make the big leap. This means he's got far fewer career innings than Daisuke. Daisuke was famous for being a bulldog, once throwing 250 pitches in Koshien, the national high school tournament and the Japanese equivalent of March Madness. Since joining Boston, however, Daisuke's suffered from chronic shoulder problems.
Darvish hasn't exactly been babied in NPB, throwing 232 innings last season in 28 starts, easily his most in pro ball. He has a more classic pitcher's frame (6' 5", 185) compared to Daisuke (6' 187), for what that's worth. But he's also had shoulder problems in the not-too-distant past. In addition to 2006, he was shelved in August 2009 for "shoulder fatigue." Given that he will be expected to make starts more frequently in the U.S. (NPB teams typically go with a six-man rotation), this should be cause for concern.
4. That stuff between the ears. After his command and control, this is probably the most significant factor as to whether Darvish can succeed. In Daisuke's case, there's been speculation that a disconnect between Daisuke and the Red Sox developed while he rehabbed his shoulder, and that he hasn't been the same pitcher since. I'm optimistic that Darvish will have better communication and less of a cultural transition because he's not a full Nihonjin, like Daisuke. His Persian father and Japanese mother actually met while studying in Florida, so Darvish presumably has some exposure to American culture. This is all of course highly speculative. He might turn out to be a prima donna intent on doing things his way, or he might be a consummate team player that's willing to follow his organization's instructions.
So how much will he cost? I don't think it will be Daisuke-expensive ($50M posting fee, $49M (point one repeating) contract over seven years) because of the economy and because Daisuke has been viewed as a bust.** But it sure won't be cheap. I think a posting fee around $40M could get it done. As for the contract, it depends on how badly Darvish wants to pitch in MLB next year. He made about $6M in 2011, and I would imagine that he'd refuse a pay cut. To give the deal some symmetry, I predict $40M for 5 years.
An $80M investment is obviously outside the realm of possibility for the Reds, which is too bad. If Darvish became the team's bona fide ace or at least the Drysdale to Cueto's Koufax (offseason optimism!), it would certainly be worth it. But the uncertainty and upfront cost are just too much. For now, we'll have to wait on Walt to wheel and deal his way to an ace by dangling various Reds' prospects.
* Not to be a killjoy, but the team is called the "Fighters," not "Ham Fighters." The team's sponsor is Nippon Ham.
** Daisuke was looking like a very good deal for Boston after the first two years, putting up about 8 WAR and collecting a ring. Plus, the team now has a much bigger following in Japan, and Boston has reaped indirect benefits like direct flights to Japan from Logan. But since the shoulder injury he's been roster deadweight.