With the ink barely dry on an Elvis Andrus contract extension, the Rangers found themselves immediately back in the spotlight when pitcher Yu Darvish flirted as closely with perfection as one can without achieving it. Darvish may have been facing the patchwork Astros, but that shouldn’t detract from exactly how dominant he was in his first start of the season. Darvish fanned 14 batters and allowed just one flimsy single by Marwin Gonzalez with two outs in the bottom of the ninth innings. Darvish fired 111 nasty pitches to the plate and only failed to induce a strikeout twice when reaching a two-strike count.
In many ways, the night felt like Darvish’s inauguration parade. The Rangers have long been an organization known for its ability to develop intriguing talent, but there was no shortage of skepticism when the club posted $51.7 million to even negotiate with Darvish and then another $56 million to ink him to a six-year deal. The complaints were all the same. How did the Rangers know what they were getting? Wouldn’t Darvish fade under the increased competition of the American game like so many Japanese hurlers before him?
The thing is, Darvish is nothing like any Japanese pitcher we have seen so far. Torii Hunter may have asserted that all Japanese imports are basically one in the same early last season, but he was dead wrong if he meant to assess Darvish. Sure, Darvish had the initial control problems that have plagued so many pitchers new to Major League Baseball. He walked 53 men in the first half of 2012 and gave plenty of pundits ammunition to assume his success would fade. But Darvish’s high strikeout rate persisted, and batters found him increasingly difficult to square up. That’s because, unlike many other Japanese pitchers making the transition, Darvish depends on incredible stuff rather than deception or temporary confusion the first time through the league.
Darvish is a legitimate ace, and his full season numbers in 2013 will almost certainly bear that fact out. None of the success he’s experienced is in any way a mirage–this is a guy who can keep a mid-90s fastball down in the zone and then leave hitters dumbfounded with a razor blade breaking ball that sits 10-15 miles per hour slower. He cut his walk rate from 4.64/9 to 3.65/9 in the second half of last season, struck out an astonishing 221 in 191 1/2 IP, put up a 3.29 FIP that defies that 3.90 ERA, and was worth 4.9 WAR in his first full season. That’s a hell of a debut, and he’s only getting better.
So when Darvish came within one out of what would have been the third perfect game pitched by a non-U.S. born starter in baseball history, he made everyone stand up and take notice. He’s not well-known because of unwarranted hype; he’s well-known because he’s one of the elite pitchers in the game and should continue to be for some time. Just 26, Darvish’s ceiling is incredibly high, and there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see his name on some Cy Young ballots come November.
Watching the pitcher Darvish has quietly become, it’s not such a stretch that the Rangers would dole out the money they did to gain the rights to his services. Even considering that lofty posting fee, the Rangers are paying a lot less for their dominant ace than just about any other team in the game. The recent contract extensions doled out to guys like Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, and Felix Hernandez all serve as concrete proof. Those guys are incredible pitchers with years of whiff inducing left in them, but Darvish has every opportunity to be right there with them as soon as, well, right now.
Rarely do we get all gooey and gush about a player’s makeup or demeanor, but it was also cool to see Darvish calmly and confidently mow down every Astro that came to the plate. Even more endearing was the genuine smile and slight laughter that washed over him as Marwin Gonzalez’s ground ball single slipped between his legs and took away his shot at history. Darvish knew he’d pitched a legendary game, and he knew placement was all that stopped him from perfection. He laughed it off like a gentleman, and as a result he made me like him even more.
While Darvish is still in the process of improving, he’s learning awfully quickly. The steps he took toward acedom during the course of the 2012 season were astonishing, and he’s already on his way to making more headway in 2013. He’s a legitimate ace, a guy who you need to watch any time you get the opportunity. Let’s hope last night’s masterpiece proves that to anyone who still had doubts.
And on a side note, is there any chance the Astros get an attendance boost because those in the crowd could see a no-hitter or perfect game fired against the home team literally any given day? (The Astros are really, really bad.)