Yu Darvish arrived with more questions than answers when the Texas Rangers won the bidding rights and signed the Japanese right-hander before the 2012 season.
Would he be as dominant in the United States as he was in Japan? Would he break the trend and be the first Japanese pitcher who fully lived up to the hype and buzz centered on him? How would he transition to a new culture from a baseball perspective and life perspective?
Darvish seems to have put to rest all of those questions 16 months into his tenure with the Rangers. He was an All-Star in his rookie season, winning 16 games, and is now establishing himself as one of the top starters in the game in his sophomore campaign.
“He has as good of stuff as any pitcher I’ve ever played behind, and the sky’s the limit for him,” outfielder David Murphy said.
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“He’s unreal,” reliever Robbie Ross said. “You’ve come to expect him to throw up double-digit strikeouts every start. He throws a curveball at 63 mph and then comes back with a fastball at 96 mph. It’s hard to believe someone can do that.”
Darvish has gone 4-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first five starts and is eyeing win No. 5 tonight against the White Sox. He has become a must-see attraction for baseball fans as there’s always a possibility he’ll flirt with a no-hitter or a perfect game as he did in his season-opening start against the Astros.
Darvish has become so popular among fans in such a short time frame that the Rangers introduced the “Yuniverse” this season, a special cheering section in the second deck, during his home starts.
“I didn’t really anticipate anything before I came, but I’m so grateful for the fans who are cheering my name when I’m out there,” Darvish said. “Very grateful to the fans.”
As manager Ron Washington said, fans love home runs and strikeouts, and Darvish does the latter as well as anyone in the game today.
Darvish leads the major leagues with 49 strikeouts and set the Rangers’ record for most strikeouts by a rookie last year with 221.
It shouldn’t be too surprising, though, as he led the Japanese league in strikeouts three times before coming to the U.S.
Darvish said he has always gone for a strikeout with a two-strike count but doesn’t feel there’s a correlation to how he’s pitching compared to his years in Japan.
“I don’t think I’m pitching exactly as I was in Japan, but I think I’m able to pitch my game,” Darvish said. “It’s different than how I pitched in Japan.”
Either way, the results are just as impressive.
Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski has worked with some of the best pitchers in the game over the past decade, from two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana to four-time All-Star Mark Buehrle.
But Pierzynski ranks Darvish ahead of them all.
“His stuff is better because he has more weapons than all of those guys,” Pierzynski said. “It’s no knock on those guys because they are great pitchers, but Yu has a bigger repertoire to use. He can throw any pitch at any time in any situation, and it makes it really tough on hitters. That’s what makes him special.”
Darvish certainly has several pitches he can go to, as Washington jokes that he has anywhere between 18,000 and 27,000 pitches on a given night.
He throws a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a cutter, a hard curve, a slow curve and will even mix in a split-finger and changeup. And that’s not to mention his best pitch, the slider.
Pierzynski said the slider baffles hitters because Darvish changes speeds and angles on it constantly. Pitching coach Mike Maddux said it’s one of the best sliders he’s seen in his lifetime.
“It has lateness to it, tightness in the spin,” Maddux said. “It’s real hard to see the rotation of the ball. Same way with his curveball and four-seamer; they all look the same.
“It’s odd, man. It’s just a gift from God that he can have the same arm speed and that much variation in velocity.”
Darvish’s talent is impressive, and it speaks volumes to it with how soon he’s adjusted to the big leagues. But Jon Daniels looks at it the other way.
“Before we signed him, one of our guys made the comment, ‘Everyone keeps talking about the adjustments that Yu’s going to have to make,’” said Daniels, the Rangers’ general manager and president of baseball operations. “Our guy said, ‘I think the league is going to have to adjust to him, not vice versa. For the most part, that’s been the case.”
No question about it.