Rangers deal themselves an ace
Japanese ace Yu Darvish agreed to a six-year, $60 deal with the Rangers
Team president Nolan Ryan was impressed by Darvish's size and durability
Darvish will have to rely more on his fastball to succeed in the majors
Yu Darvish has been a source of intrigue for years, a 6-foot-5, 216-pound, 25-year-old right-hander of Japanese and Iranian descent whose otherworldly stats in Japan suggest the abilities of an ace even as the track record of recent countrymen in the majors cloud those projections with caution or even doubt.
Now, that mystery will slowly be stripped away in a matter of months, as the Rangers and Darvish agreed to a six-year contract on Wednesday reportedly worth $56 million with about $4 million in incentives and an opt-out clause after five years if he hits certain performance thresholds. He'll have his first spring training workout on Feb. 23 and make his first start in the first week of April, meaning the waiting game is nearly over.
The total cost to the Rangers for Darvish's services could be as much as $112 million given the $51,703,411 posting fee -- $51.7 million was essentially the fee with the inclusion of 34 as a tribute to the uniform number for team president, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, and 11 for Darvish's uniform number -- Texas must pay to Darvish's old team, the Pacific League's Nippon-Ham Fighters.
That's nearly $50 million more than the five-year, $75 million contract former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson received from the division rival Angels this offseason, suggesting just how valuable Texas believes Darvish can be, putting money behind Ryan's words (Darvish is "one of the most talented young pitchers that we've seen") at Wednesday's press conference.
Most telling of the premium Texas placed on Darvish? It prioritized him over free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder, whom they may no longer be able to afford.
"There's a lot of unique things about [Darvish]," Ryan said at a press conference in Arlington, Texas. "Obviously his body type, his size, his durability, I think his feel for the baseball, the fact that he's as comfortable throwing his breaking ball as well as his fastball and to me that he has several really quality pitches. I think, when you look at him, you realize pretty quick that he is special."
Added general manager Jon Daniels, "We saw a guy that we felt was built to pitch innings. It's a classic pitcher's build. He has a real commitment to his conditioning and work ethic and a lot of intangibles that lend him to pitch a lot of innings at a high caliber for a long period of time."
Here are the indisputables: in his Pacific League career Darvish was 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA in 1,268 1/3 innings, with a 0.98 WHIP, 55 complete games, 18 shutouts, 1,250 strikeouts and .204 average against Darvish in his career. He was a two-time league MVP and five-time All-Star, who finished his 2011 season with 27 consecutive quality starts as he went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA in 232 innings.
Perhaps most compelling is that Darvish's career ERA (1.99) is better than best single-season ERA (2.13) Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka had in Japan before coming to the major leagues in 2007.
There is too much hang-up on the recent failures and middling successes of recent Japanese starters in the majors -- Matsuzka with the Red Sox and Kei Igawa with the Yankees, to name two recent examples -- as Darvish is a very different pitcher.
There will be a considerable burden of expectations, as all of Japan will be watching closely and the potentially $112 million committed by the Rangers has only been exceeded by contracts given to CC Sabathia, Johan Santana, Barry Zito, Mike Hampton and Cliff Lee.
Having lost Lee and Wilson in consecutive offseasons, the Rangers needed an ace-caliber pitcher such as Darvish to be sure to stay on top of the AL. They have no shortage of quality arms -- Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Oganodo and prospects such as Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers -- but none of them has the track record or potential of Darvish.
The spotlight of the major leagues shouldn't faze Darvish -- his first Pacific League manager, current Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, likened his overwhelming celebrity to a mix of "Fonzie and Elvis Presley" -- and his first pitching coach said Darvish's understanding of pitching and physical ability allowed him to command his pitches "like Wiffle ball."
That's lofty praise, but there are fundamental differences between pitching in Japan as opposed to the United States: length of rest between starts (four days in the majors, often six days in Japan); the size and feel of the ball (the Japanese ball is slightly smaller with more pronounced seams); the substance of the mound (the dirt on Japanese mounds is softer); and the classic approach to hitters (more fastball-based in the majors).
In a interview last November for this profile on Darvish, Rangers director of Pacific Rim operations Jim Colborn, who has been a pitching coach in both the majors and Japan, said, "The biggest adjustment is mentality. The physical training part is pretty seamless."
The pitching coach pioneer for helping Japanese pitchers make the transition is Dave Wallace, who was the Dodgers' pitching coach from 1995 to 1997, which were Hideo Nomo's first three season in the U.S. Nomo, who won 123 games in his 12-year big-league career, was the pioneer and the most successful Japanese pitcher in the majors, thus providing a blueprint for success.
Speaking in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Wallace said Darvish is well suited to succeed in Texas because of the support he has, from co-agent Don Nomura (who previously represented Nomo and Hideki Irabu) to Ryan and pitching coach Mike Maddux with the Rangers.
"They've got to get to learn his culture, his work habits and his throwing program," said Wallace, also a former pitching coach for the Red Sox, Mets and Astros, who is now the minor-league pitching coordinator for the Braves. "Instead of force-feeding anything, it's a mutual respect of how they're going to get the best out of this young pitcher. Trust is a huge factor.
"Knowing Mike and knowing Nolan, I think the transition is going to be pretty good because they're both intelligent, they both understand pitching and they understand people as well. You have to just take the time to get to know [the pitcher], and I'm sure they've done their homework before all this -- what his program is, what his throwing is, what his habits are, what his routine is."
The other issue is that, to be successful in the majors, Darvish may have to alter his approach somewhat.
"You have to pitch off the fastball to succeed in the big leagues," Wallace said.
It's essential in the majors but less common in Japan. Darvish, for instance, throws at least a half-dozen pitches, and has even written a booklet on his arsenal entitled Yu Darvish's Breaking Pitch Bible.
Darvish's fastball does sit in the low-to-mid 90s, and at times he can dial it up into the upper 90s, which would allow him to challenge hitters.
Wallace recalled one telling scene when Nomo was teammates with Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park. Unable to find a common language, Nomo resorted to drawing a home plate and lines in the dirt to explain to Park, whose fastball was 95-98 mph, that his velocity bought him more margin for error and that he could pitch more over the plate than Nomo, who had to nibble with his 89-91 mph fastball.
"What people don't realize about Hideo is that, as good as that split was, he just knew that when he had his fastball and could pitch to the inside, the outside, up and down and exploit the quadrants within the strike zone, that's when he had his big game," Wallace said. "When he came over, we had to talk about it a little bit."
The use of his fastball is one tangible change Darvish will have to make, among a host of others, not the least of which is competing in a new country and in a new league. But pitching in the majors was always Darvish's "ultimate goal," according to Hillman, and now he'll get that chance, with the Rangers as his sponsor and, they hope, as the beneficiary.