Why I Would Avoid Yu Darvish

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was in Japan earlier this week watching 25 year old pitcher Yu Darvish win his 16th game of the season for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League. The Blue Jays join a list of six other teams that have had reported interest in Darvish over the last year.

Over the last five years, the phenom has accumulated a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.79 in what many consider the top professional baseball league outside of the Majors. Over the same amount of time, the only MLB starter with a better strikeout to walk comparison is Roy Halladay and his K:BB ratio of 5.44.

Here’s what ESPN’s Keith Law had to say about Darvish back in the summer of 2009:

[He throws] seven different pitches if you count the two- and four-seam fastballs separately. He’ll work in the low 90s with the four-seamer, but the 87-91 mph two-seamer might be the better pitch because of its sharp downward tailing action. He also throws a hard slider from 84 to 87 mph with a sharp, long break and good tilt, as well as a curve, a “slurve” that’s in between the two breaking balls, a so-so splitter and a shuuto. He works largely with the fastballs and the slider, and if he can sharpen the splitter or settle into a split-change, that would be more than enough for him to go through an MLB lineup three times. Darvish, who is half-Iranian, is unusually tall for a Japanese pitcher at 6-foot-5, and has a tremendous track record of success in the NPB, the top professional baseball league in the world after MLB.

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that Darvish’s representatives were preparing for a potential posting by his current team, which would make him available to negotiate a contract with the highest bidding MLB organization this winter. When estimating what type of posting fee would win such an auction, I don’t know where to begin.

Many are suggesting that a good starting point would be the $51 million that the Boston Red Sox paid for Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K and Darvish share many similarities when it comes to age and image: both would be beginning their MLB careers around the same age with a reputation for dominance and somewhat of an aura about them that was earned in the NPB. However, where Matsuzaka was overworked to the point of throwing more than 1400 innings before turning 26, Darvish has thrown just over 1,000  innings during his career in Japan.

However, one must remember the arms race going on between the Red Sox and Yankees at the time, and how insane it made everyone involved. Things have tempered a bit. Last season, there was talk that a posting fee might be as little as $25 million.

That amount seems small, considering that the Oakland A’s reportedly bid $19 million for negotiating rights to Hisashi Iwakuma this past offseason, failing to come to terms with him on a deal. While Darvish will be another year older this winter, it’s after another year in which he consistently dominated batters. His reputation in Japan is that of a rock star, and the Japanese team selling his rights aren’t likely doing so for pocket change.

However, the posting fee isn’t all there is to consider. We also have to look at what his first contract might entail. We could again look at Matsuzaka, whose contract with the Boston Red Sox (6 years at $52 million) only appears to be truly awful when it’s combined with the money the team spent on his posting fee. We might also compare Darvish to Stephen Strasburg, another young, but unproven phenom who signed a deal for a total of $22.6 million (including bonus) for his first four seasons in the league.

I’d suggest that Darvish, at 25 when he presumably signs a deal this offseason, is more of a known entity than Strasburg when he signed his first contract at 21. Darvish isn’t going to be brought along slowly in the Minor Leagues. The expectations on him will be large and immediate no matter what team ends up acquiring his services.

Earlier this month, we saw Jered Weaver sign what many considered to be a team friendly contract with the Los Angeles Angels, giving up his final year of arbitration and four years of free agency for $85 million. While it’s certainly a stretch to imagine Darvish being given the type of money Weaver agreed to, given the league that he’s pitched in and the money spent on a posting fee likely playing a factor in any contract agreement, a dollar figure between Matsuzaka’s and Weaver’s respective deals isn’t too far fetched considering the underwhelming class of starting pitching on the free agent market this winter after C.C. Sabathia (potentially), C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle.

While it’s pure speculation on my part, it makes sense to me that any team securing the rights to negotiate and actually come to an agreement with Yu Darvish must be willing to spend something in the $100 million range. That’s a lot of money to be spent on a pitcher that hasn’t thrown a single inning of Major League Baseball, especially considering the relative cheapness with which a team can acquire other unproven entities through the draft or with Central American prospects.

Perhaps most damning of all when it comes to spending large posting fees and expensive contracts for Japanese pitching is that the history of doing so is fraught with so many bad investments.

Six pitchers from the NPB have been signed by Major League Teams after paying posting fees, here’s the total amount that the team spent on the player (posting fee plus initial contract), and the value by WAR according to FanGraphs that they brought back to their organization based on what the same player would make in free agency.

  • Kazuhisa Ishii, LAD: $23.6 million cost; $2.5 million return + a negative $1.6 million return for one year of Jason Phillips (acquired in trade for Ishii).
  • Ramon Ramirez, NYY: $0.35 million cost; $0 return.
  • Akinori Otsuka, SDP: $1.8 million cost; $7.1 million return + additional return as part of trade that brought back Adrian Gonzalez, Terrmel Sledge and Chris Young.
  • Shinji Mori, TBR: $2.15 million cost; $0 return.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS: $103 million cost; $44 million return.
  • Kei Igawa, NYY: $46 million cost; a negative $0.8 million return.

Using the idea that a each win above replacement cost $5 million on the free agent market this year, while assuming an inflation rate of 5% per year, we can get a rough idea of how Darvish would have to perform in order to live up to a team spending $100 million on him for the next five years of his career.

He would have to accumulate something around 17 wins above replacement for that to work out. So, he’d have to be in the top twenty pitchers in the league over a five year period in order for a team spending $100 million to theoretically break even. Of course, the whole idea of spending in baseball is to do better than break even, but let’s look at some of the pitchers you would have to believe he will be as good as in order to justify the signing.

These are the pitchers with more than 17 wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs) over the last five years:

Roy Oswalt, Adam Wainwright, Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle, James Shields, Matt Cain, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia and Roy Halladay.

I haven’t had the benefit of seeing Yu Darvish pitch in anything other than highlight reels and there’s no doubt that his numbers are impressive in the NPB, but I would have a hard time justifying an expectation of endurance and performance level that equals any of the top twenty pitchers in baseball without him first throwing a pitch in the Major Leagues.