30 Rangers In 30 Days: Yu Darvish

This is a new concept to NolanWritin’, but since it’s a fairly common knockoff to the whole 30 Clubs In 30 Days thing, I feel the need to explain myself can end right there. The basis for starting this now is that today is January 23rd, and the Rangers will commence with their Spring Training schedule on February 22nd. Get it? (As a slight aside, I’ll be in Surprise on Saturday the 23rd, so I’ll be sure to take some photographs, and if I’m lucky, perhaps some NW’ interview exclusives with some of the players.)

Because it’s my own (fake) idea, it means I can begin arbitrarily in any order I please, but since I’m not original or creative, we might as well start like they do on the scorecards with position #1, which connotes the pitcher. The next 15 or so days will be spent on starting pitchers and potential bullpen arms (which is why I’m loosely going to cover 30 players instead of the 25-man roster limit). This is an exercise in fluidity rather than the static, malleability rather than the concrete, because we really just don’t know how the roster is going to look on March 31st against the Astros.

Today we profile Yu Darvish.

Darvish, 26, is the best pitcher on the Rangers. This should be pretty commonly accepted knowledge at this point. But moreover, he’s one of the best starting pitchers in the American League. In 2012, Darvish trailed only Justin Verlander (6.8 fWAR) and Felix Hernandez (6.1 fWAR) in terms of pitching WAR, and was tied with both AL Cy Young winner David Price and Angels’ ace, Zack Greinke, at 5.1 fWAR. If you’d like to bog yourself down by stupid stats like wins and losses — where he was 16-9 — that’s your prerogative, but that’s why you won’t see me mentioning wins and losses as they relate to pitchers in any of my articles (except now).

It’s easy to see why Darvish accumulated so much WAR despite, ostensibly, a pretty lackluster rookie season. He was 2nd in the league to Detroit’s Max Scherzer in terms of strikeouts per nine innings (10.4), which was deleteriously juxtaposed by the highest walks-per-nine rate of any of the top-30 WAR pitchers in the Majors in 2012 (4.19). As we can see, the walks were what made his ERA (a respectable 3.9) as high as it was. But even at that, his xFIP (3.52) and SIERA (3.55) suggest he should have done better than his ERA indicated.

In his last 8 starts (excluding Game 163), Darvish racked up one of the most ridiculously imposing stretches of pitching in baseball last year, tossing 57.1 IP in which he allowed a mere 35 hits, 15 walks and two home runs, recording a disgusting total of 67 strikeouts. His ERA in that frame was 2.35. This was around the time Geovany Soto, who will be his “personal catcher” in 2013, became his every-time-out backstop. So, needless to say, if that’s the type of production we should expect, we’ll be in good hands.

Of course, living in reality (which I tend to do from time to time), generating those kinds of numbers probably shouldn’t be the expectation. It’s farfetched. But if there was a pitcher on staff that could toil with those kinds of numbers, it would be Darvish.

For what it’s worth, the founder of Baseball Reference, Bill James, has Darvish pegged at a record of 14-9, throwing 214.0 innings, with respective K/BB rates at 10.39 and 3.70, in 2013. He has his projected ERA at 3.45.

Dan Symborski, who every year runs his ZIPS projection system, has Darvish at 193.0 IP, with 226 K’s, 86 BB’s, an ERA of 3.4, and 5.7 WAR. I’m not saying this is who Darvish will be in 2013, but if either projection system is accurate, we’re looking at a top-of-the-rotation Cy Young candidate.

If you’re asking me, which I don’t know why you would, I see him surpassing both projections. When the Rangers dished out north of $100 million to ascertain Darvish’s services before last year, they weren’t only paying for a TORP, or an ace, they were paying for the best pitcher in the Major Leagues. His first few months last year, where it seemed like he was walking 4 or 5 hitters a game, were painful to watch. It was enough to give the casual Rangers fan pause, and to question if the organization had made a grave mistake in the longterm.

I’m expecting a dominant sophomore season from the Japanese import, perhaps putting him in the same class as Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw. Whether he’s going to be as good as the perception I have of him remains to be seen.

But one thing is clear: he is the best pitcher on one of the best pitching staffs in the Major Leagues.

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