Debate swirling over Yu Darvish’s ace status

Just as some baseball people don’t believe that a player can be clutch or that certain hitters possess a special talent for driving in runs, Yu Darvish doesn’t believe in the concept of the ace pitcher.

A team’s best starting pitcher has the same task as the weakest link of the rotation — to allow fewer runs than the opposing pitcher while working deep into a game — and no one pitcher should be placed on a pedestal above the other four.

“All starting pitchers have the same goal, and it’s a unit,” Darvish said Wednesday. “I don’t know what the definition of ace is. I think all the starting pitchers have to support each other.”

That’s nice and all. It also serves absolutely no use in the fresh debate of whether Darvish is truly an ace, a topic that has pitted the stats crowd against some longtime observers of Texas Rangers baseball who point to game events to underscore his shortcomings.

The final verdict: Darvish’s numbers this season leave him in the top tier of pitchers in the game, but most agree, including the man himself, that while he is an exceptional pitcher, there is room for him to improve in upcoming seasons.

“This guy comes with a lot of hype, but he’s only in his second year at the major league level,” manager Ron Washington said. “Baseball here in the United States is totally different than baseball in Japan. He was a dominant guy in Japan.

“At times he’s been dominant. It’s the consistency that he’s trying to find here. It might take another year. It might take another couple years. He’s still learning.”

Expectations, based on seven dominant seasons in Japan, are behind the debate, but they aren’t as high as the expectations Darvish has for himself.

The right-hander will enter his 26th start of the season Friday night against Minnesota with a 12-5 record, a 2.68 ERA that rates second in the American League and a baseball-leading 225 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .191 against him, also second in the league.

A dive into the deep end of more objective stats produces even more numbers that support the notion that he is an ace.

Yet that’s not good enough for him.

“I know what kind of pitcher I want to be ultimately, and I’m trying to get closer and closer to my expectation,” he said. “I’m not trying to meet everyone else’s expectation.”

Some of his numbers also aren’t good enough for the camp that harps against his ace status. The Rangers are only 14-11 when he starts, including consecutive losses in games in which he faltered when leading or tied after the fifth inning.

He also lost leads late in an April game against the White Sox and in May at Arizona.

Hitters at the bottom of the order have too much success against him, the opposition argues, and of the 20 homers he has surrendered, too many have been hit by batters who are supposed to be overmatched by an ace.

Darvish lacks the “killer instinct,” as a member of the anti-ace crowd tweeted after the Rangers’ 3-2 loss Saturday at Chicago in which Darvish yielded a two-run homer to Adam Dunn in the half-inning after he had been handed a 2-0 lead.

That complaint comes even though Darvish allowed only two runs on six hits in seven innings and with 11 strikeouts recorded his 10th 10-strikeout game of the season.

The pro-ace group comes armed with the stats to disprove the notion that Darvish isn’t effective in late innings or in high-leverage situations, though the numbers show that he is better earlier in games.

And the Rangers win-loss record is dismissed not only by statistics but by the fact that pitchers can’t control how the offense performs with them on the mound. To that end, the Rangers have scored only 24 runs in those 11 losses in Darvish’s games.

His teammates are part of the pro-ace crowd.

“We knew Darvish coming in had great stuff, but we didn’t know what to expect,” third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “He proved that he’s that kind of ace. He pitched really well last year, and this year has been even better.

“He’s been solid, he’s been consistent, and he’s been striking people out left and right. Every time he’s out there, he’s giving us a chance to win the ballgame. That’s what you expect from an ace.”

Washington spoke at length on the subject Tuesday during his daily pregame media session and agreed that it’s an interesting debate.

He doesn’t agree with Beltre, but he isn’t wholly on board with the anti-ace contingent. Washington tempers Darvish’s status because he’s only in his second season in the major leagues.

Washington said that there are only a handful of aces in the game, with Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw topping the list. Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and David Price are, too, Washington said.

Recent bumps in the road by Verlander and Hernandez notwithstanding, those are pitchers who can win games 1-0 and 2-1 by pitching into the eighth inning or finishing games.

Darvish has yet to register a complete game. But if Darvish were available to start Game 7 of the World Series, Washington would give him the ball.

“A No. 1 starter is a guy who takes the ball and keeps it for nine innings,” Washington said. “A No. 1 starter is a guy who gives the ball up in the eighth inning consistently. Now, on our team, if you want to put our pitching staff together, he’s probably a No. 1.”

Each side of the ace debate comes equipped with evidence supporting their cases. Both sides agree that there is no debating that Darvish is a talented pitcher who is only going to get better.

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