Thanks to Patrick Newman for his help in writing and researching this article.
Judging from the first responders to the coming storm over the Pacific, this title bears repeating: Yu Darvish is not Daisuke Matsuzaka. The natural search for comps, paired with the disappointment that was Matsuzaka’s career, will lead to suspicion when it comes to the newest ace slated to come over from Japan. Why should it work out this time if it didn’t work out the last couple times? But there are real differences between the two pitchers that could use a little emphasis.
Consider this list your consolation if you are dumbfounded by the posting fee that your team will spend simply for the right to speak with Darvish.
The first difference might seem irrelevant to some: Darvish would be the tallest pitcher to make the jump from Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball. At 6-foot-5, he’s five inches taller than Matsuzaka. Darvish is also 220 pounds, but could have the frame to add more. He added 20 pounds this year.
This might not be a big deal. Research on the subject seems to suggest that height is not well correlated with pitcher success. Then again, any major-league research is tainted by the fact that short pitchers who have made it to the majors have survived all the denigration and marginalization that they may have received for being short. It’s true — at least anecdotally — that height is preferred when evaluating pitchers. Factually, pitchers shorter than 6 feet tall are less likely to hit 100 mph, and tall pitchers also get some benefit from having release points closer to the plate.
But saying that Darvish is taller and bigger still sets him apart from his fellow countrymen. Velocity also ontinues to add some separation. Darvish has hit 97 mph with his fastball this year, and sat at 94 mph for most of the season. Kei Igawa never averaged better than 90 mph; Daisuke’s best season had him at 92 mph — and even Hideo Nomo wasn’t known for his velocity. Hiroki Kuroda averages 92 mph with his fastball. Here’s the list of qualified American starters who sat better than 94 mph this past season: Alexi Ogando, Justin Verlander, David Price, Michael Pineda, Edwin Jackson and Derek Holland.
Darvish is taller and bigger and throws his fastball faster than Matsuzaka. Darvish is a year younger than Matsuzaka was when he posted, too. And Darvish also is better, if you believe their comparable Japanese statistics.
Matsuzaka had a 2.95 ERA in eight seasons in Japan. He never once had an ERA under 2.00. He had an 8.7 K/9. Darvish just completed his fifth-straight season in which he had an ERA under 2.00 and a whip under 1.00. This year was his finest to date: 16-5, 1.48 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 240 K, 32 BB, 5 HR in 207 IP (stats as of Sept. 27). Overall, Darvish managed a 1.996 ERA in his seven NPB years, with an 8.9 K/9. Demonstrably better.
Sometimes it seems like Japanese pitchers have too much mileage on their arms by the time they come to America. Their approach to stretching pitchers out, and bullpen side sessions is different. (Read: pitch until you drop, or Nagekomi.)
On the other hand, Darvish has avoided the notorious overwork that plagued Matsuzaka’s amateur and early pro careers. Like Matsuzaka’s teenage years, young Darvish pitched at Koshien, Japan’s national high school baseball tournament. Unlike Matsuzaka, he doesn’t quite have a 250-pitch, 17-inning complete game on his resume. Darvish’s longest outing was a 166-pitch game that he lost on a walk-off home run in the 10th inning. Also, unlike Matsuzaka, Darvish was eased into his pro career: he threw 94.1 innings and 149.2 innings in his first two pro years. Matsuzaka, by contrast, threw 180 innings as an 18 year-old rookie — 347.2 in his first two seasons — and set a career high with 240.1 innings in his third. In essence, Darvish has fired fewer bullets.
Now it’s time for the toughest parts of the comparison: stuff and demeanor.
The 25-year-old Darvish throws five pitches that project as above average at the MLB level: a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a pair of sliders and a 12-6 curveball. He’s also added a cutter into his repertoire this year, and he mixes in occasional changeups and forkballs. Darvish’s out pitches have been his two sliders: a mid-80′s horizontal slider that breaks hard and away from right-handed batters, and a lower-80′s downward-breaking slider. This year he induced whiffs 19.5% of the time he threw his slider — and he threw them about a quarter of the time.
From NPBTracker.com, a game chart of a typical Darvish start in 2011.
This might sound a little familiar: Matsuzaka also has five pitches, now that he’s dropped his curveball. That’s a two fastballs, slider, cutter, changeup and split-finger. Maybe it’s just a split-change. By linear weights, his slider and cutter have been the most effective pitches — and Japanese hitters in 2006 rated his slider as the league’s second-best pitch. Over the past year-plus, Matsuzaka has only gotten whiffs on 13.6% of his sliders.
It’s hard to compare stuff with limited information on hand. Demeanor is tough to pinpoint, too, but there certainly seems to be a big difference if you talk to writers who are familiar with the Japanese league. Both are self-assured young men, as any successful baseball star might be. But they aren’t the same.
Some have described Matsuzaka as cocky, but Robert Whiting, author of The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan, speaks glowingly of Darvish’s character: “I think the U.S media will take to Darvish in a hurry. He’s tall, has movie-star good looks. And he is also a really nice guy.” When it comes to pressure, the two seem to react differently, too. JapaneseBaseball.com founder Michael Westbay thinks that “pressure seems to roll off of Darvish like water on grease.” Matsuzaka, on the other hand, can look “less human and more robot” as the situation gets out of hand.
We’ve run the gamut and compared Darvish and Matsuzaka on many different levels. For the most part, they seem to be very different pitchers — and yet you could flip the table: both are slider-heavy right-handers coming to America fresh off of dominating the Japanese league. But when you hear that your GM is in Japan scouting Darvish — as Jon Daniels reportedly was earlier this year — maybe you’ll choose to focus on the differences that exist between the two.
Then you’ll see that — whether it’s a matter of grease, robots, velocity or remaining bullets — there are real differences between these two men.
Note: I have edited the third paragraph of this piece because some mostly irrelevant thoughts distracted from the point of the piece, which was a simple comparison of two pitchers.