Rangers’ Yu Darvish has potential to be best Japanese-born player ever

Of the thousands upon thousands of men who have played Major League Baseball, fewer than 50 are Japanese-born. Of those 50, only a handful have experienced any significant level of success. More often than not, high expectations lead to disappointing results once the players begin their careers in the United States.

Of course, there are a few notable exceptions. Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka have all achieved some level of stardom in America. Nomo threw two no-hitters and was an All-Star and won Rookie of the Year honors in 1995. Matsui is a two-time All-Star and 2009 World Series MVP. Matsuzaka, better known by his American nickname “Dice-K”, helped win the World Series in 2007 with the Red Sox and was fourth in Cy Young voting in 2008 after posting an 18-3 record with a 2.90 ERA. Far more successful than his countrymen, however, is Ichiro Suzuki.

After seven years of playing professionally in Japan, Ichiro had compiled an impressive resume: seven All-Star selections, three MVP awards, seven Gold Gloves and seven batting titles. Known by few baseball fans outside of Japan during this time, he was purchased by the Seattle Mariners for $13 million from the Orix Blue Wave in November of 2000.

He debuted on Apr. 2, 2001, and has been one of the most consistently productive players in all of baseball ever since. He won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in his first season and won a Gold Glove award and was selected to the All-Star team each of his first 10 seasons. He set the record for most hits in a single season with 262 in 2004 and recorded more than 200 hits every year from 2001 to 2010. He is, without a doubt, the best Japanese-born player ever to put on an MLB uniform.

Unfortunately, for every Ichiro, Dice-K, Matsui and Nomo that comes to the States, there are another 10 who meet more failure than glory. This season, another highly touted Japanese player will join the major league ranks. He is younger, throws harder and has already created more hype than any other Japanese import to date, and he is going to prove that he is the real deal. His name is Yu Darvish.

Darvish has been in the spotlight his entire life. Even in middle school, professional teams from Japan and the United States were scouting him. In high school, he threw a no-hitter and struck out 375 batters in 332 1/3 innings while holding a stellar 1.10 ERA. He was drafted straight out of high school and has posted even more impressive numbers as a professional.

In just his second pro season, he led his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, to its first Pacific League title since 1981 and was named the Asia Series Most Valuable Player. Not even 21 years of age, Darvish was turning heads all over the globe. From his third season in 2007 through his seventh in 2011, he found ways to improve his already remarkable statistics. During that stretch, he posted an ERA under 2.00 each year while striking out more than 200 batters four times. He was named to the All-Star team all five years and won the Pacific Coast League MVP award twice. Not bad for a guy who turned 25 in August.

Even with his incredible success, it was understandable that some MLB teams would be wary of handing out millions of dollars for his services. Five short years ago, the Boston Red Sox gave Daisuke Matsuzaka a six-year, $52 million contract after paying his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, more than $51 million just for the rights to negotiate with him. The investment paid off initially, when Dice-K posted a 3.72 ERA with 355 strikeouts and 33 wins in his first two major league seasons. In 2009, however, he spent time on the disabled list with weakness in his throwing arm. It was later revealed that he hid a hip injury from the Red Sox that placed extra strain on his arm during his throwing motion. The team and fans were outraged, and one of his six years under contract went to waste.

In 2010, Dice-K was decent, starting 25 games and winning nine while compiling a 4.69 ERA. The Red Sox looked ahead to 2011 with cautious optimism, hoping their former ace would regain his form. Sadly, he was only able to start eight games before having season-ending Tommy John surgery on Jun. 10.

The past three years of the Dice-K experiment, along with less than successful experiences with Hideki Irabu on the Yankees and Kosuke Fukudome on the Cubs, have left professional baseball executives in America skeptical, to say the least.

How ignorant to disregard the career of Ichiro, how foolish to generalize all Japanese players as overhyped, underperforming, aging has-beens. Luckily for one club, extensive scouting and analysis will pay off.

On Dec. 19, the Texas Rangers were announced as the winners of the Darvish bidding process, with a bid of $51.7 million. On Jan. 18, they took a leap of faith and signed Darvish to a six-year, $56 million deal. Some self-appointed baseball “experts” laughed at the similarity of the Darvish contract to that of Matsuzaka.

The Rangers executives just laughed. They had just signed one of the best pitchers in the world. While skeptics will be quick to assume Darvish is on the same career path as Dice-K, supporters will be equally as fast to point out some significant differences that suggest greater success in Yu’s future.

Moving into a hitter’s ballpark in the Texas heat will be a tough transition, but Darvish has the tools to succeed. He is younger than Dice-K and has a more prototypical makeup of a starting pitcher. Darvish stands five inches taller than Matsuzaka, and talent evaluators believe his frame can withstand a greater workload. Those concerned about the possibility of an injury should realize that the Rangers learned from the mistakes of the Red Sox. Appropriate amounts of rest and training will be used, as the last thing the Rangers need is a waste of $35 million at the end of Darvish’s contract.

From a mental standpoint, Darvish is rock solid. He has experienced more success at a younger age than any other foreign player. Statistically speaking, it will be almost impossible for him to put up the same numbers as in Japan. But then again, his numbers would be hard to replicate in video games. If he can compete at anywhere near his Pacific League levels, he will be on the fast track to stardom, just like Ichiro.

If anyone has the potential to supersede Ichiro as the greatest Japanese player in America, it has to be Yu Darvish.

_Ed is a senior in Engineering. He can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @cubsfan2310._