You’ve probably heard of Yu Darvish by now. He’s the best pitcher in the Japanese leagues and has a good chance of taking the major leagues by storm when he eventually comes to the U.S., if his pitching arm hold out. His fastball is in the high 90’s, and his records the last few seasons in Japan are unbelievable. He went 15-5 in 2007 with a 1.82 ERA and 210 K’s and only 123 hits and 49 walks allowed in 207.2 innings. Last year he went 16-4 with a 1.89 ERA and 208 K’s and only 136 hits and 44 walks allowed in 200.2 innings. He’s also not afraid to pitch inside, hitting 22 batters with pitches in those two seasons combined. The most effective pitchers usually have a bit of a mean streak. It is extremely hard for even the best professional hitters to dig in against a hard thrower who isn’t afraid that he might hurt someone by throwing inside.
This year, Darvish is off to a 3-1 start with a 1.32 ERA with 29 K’s and 18 hits and 7 walks allowed in 34 innings. Darvish turns 23 on August 16.
Darvish and college pitcher Stephen Strasburg are probably the best two pitchers in the world not currently playing professional baseball in the U.S. and Canada, with the possible exception of whoever is currently Cuba’s top pitcher. The only cause for concern with Darvish is whether his arm will eventually fall off from all the innings he has already thrown in Japan. He’s already thrown 29 complete games in his career, with 22 of those coming in 2007 and 2008. He’s thrown 2 complete games in four starts this year.
He pitches for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. They are one of Japan’s small market teams, so there’s a much better chance of the Ham Fighters selling him to a major league team, than if he played for, say, the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers or Seibu Lions. My guess is that if he were sold to the highest bidder after this season, he would command even more money than the Red Sox paid for the right to negotiate a contract with Dice-K, even with the bad economy. It remains to be seen whether the Ham Fighters will put him on the market or hold on to him.
Darvish was born in Japan. His father is Iranian and his mother is Japanese: Darvish is a shortening of a longer Iranian name. A number of the Japanese League’s greatest all-time stars have not been of pure Japanese ancestry. Sadaharu Oh’s father was Chinese, and Masaichi Kaneda, NPB’s all-time wins (400) and strikeout (4,490) leader was actually of Korean descent (his real name was Kim Kyung-Hong). The reason is probably the same reason why so many great U.S. players have been African-American, ethnic whites, or poor southern whites: sports are an avenue for success for people who have fewer opportunities in the main-stream economy dominated by the majority ethnic group.