When Should The Texas Rangers Extend Yu Darvish

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If people know you’re a baseball fan, and pay attention to baseball things, they like to talk to you about baseball, especially when you don’t have much else in common. Like the weather, sports are good for giving two dissimilar people common ground on which to converse. 
The best conversation starter for this week from an acquaintance just might be “did you see that Robinson Cano got a $240 million deal?”, likely asked incredulously. You could counter with an equally puzzled query about Scott Feldman’s three-year, $30 million contract, or Brian Wilson’s two-year, $18.5 million guarantee he netted, but your casual baseball fan co-worker/church member/family member doesn’t care about those. At the crux of all of these conversations is the common thread of wow, look at all the money baseball players get paid.

The small-talker who is floored by the big dollar signs isn’t wrong. Baseball players get paid a lot, and that is only going to continue. In 2006, baseball teams were paying $4.5 million per win. Now, that figure is up to $7 million, according to the thorough research done at Beyond the Box Score. With lucrative TV contracts providing an even greater influx of cash, that figure is likely to continue on that sort of 7% inflation rate annually.

When the Rangers won the negotiating rights with Yu Darvish two years ago, they came to an agreement on a six-year, $56 million contract that could increase to $60 million if he stays relatively healthy for the first five years of the deal. According to baseball-reference, Darvish has been worth just shy of 10 wins in his first two seasons in Texas, putting his value in dollar terms (using $7 million per win) at a higher amount than his total contract already. Even factoring in the $51 million posting fee Texas had to pay, Darvish is well on his way to being a worthy investment.

Darvish will hit free agency in 2018. Because of a clause in his contract, and his 2nd-place finish in Cy Young voting this year, if he wins the Cy Young Award, or finishes 2nd-4th in the voting two more times in the next three years, the sixth year of his contract becomes a player option, and he’ll hit free agency in 2017. That puts Darvish under Texas control for a possible four more years, but more than likely it will be three more years.

It has been a long time since the Rangers had a pitcher like Yu Darvish. At any snapshot in time, there are typically no more than ten pitchers in baseball who are considered a True #1, or Ace. Darvish is (arguably) one of them right now.

Assuming he continues to pitch at or better than his current level, if Darvish were to reach free agency in 2017 or 2018, when he is 30 or 31 years old, the size of the contract he would receive would be jaw-dropping. There is nothing more valuable than an Ace.

This is why Texas needs to sign Darvish to a contract extension before free agency is in sight.

This has almost become common practice in baseball. Teams are frequently negotiating contract extensions with their core players before they can test the open market. Texas has done it with Ian Kinsler, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, and Elvis Andrus already.

There is a template for this kind of signing, specifically. Just this past spring, two other Aces in the game were given contract extensions. Justin Verlander got a seven-year, $180 million deal from Detroit, and Felix Hernandez received seven years and $175 million from Seattle. Both of these deals were signed exactly two years before each pitcher would have reached free agency.

Were Texas to follow that practice, it would be next offseason that a Darvish extension would get done, or possibly two years from now, if that last year of his contract seemed unlikely to be converted to a player option.

There are pros and cons to taking this approach. For example, the further away from free agency an extension is signed, the greater the negotiating power held by the team, and potentially the more reasonable the contract size may be. By entering into extension talks with Darvish this offseason, Texas could secure their Ace without the contract landing in the neighborhood of the Verlander or Hernandez deal.

However, entering into extension talks multiple years ahead of a player’s free agency also presents a major risk to the team. Yes, the player could be leaving free agency dollars on the table, but the greater downside is to the club if the player’s skills were to diminish or injuries impacted his performance or even ended his career altogether.

Locking Darvish up to an extension now could be financially advantageous. It would also certainly bring a sense of security to the team that their Ace will be here for many years to come.

But Darvish is also an injury risk, like all pitchers, but especially him because of how frequently he throws breaking pitches, especially his slider. According to Fangraphs, Darvish threw his slider 37% of the time last season, trailing only Ervin Santana’s 38% for most frequently thrown sliders. Because of the stress it places on the arm, the slider has a reputation for chewing up a pitcher’s elbow over the duration of his career.

One of the reasons an Ace is an Ace is because of durability, and the ability to pitch a lot of innings. When we compare Darvish’s pitch usage to the Aces of the game, he stands out from the rest, and possibly not in a good way. Here is the data over the last two years:

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Cliff Lee and David Price throw about 90% fastballs and change-ups, the non-breaking stuff. Felix Hernandez, James Shields, and Justin Verlander all throw their change-ups in the double-digit percentage range. Clayton Kershaw is the closest in pitch usage to Darvish. Darvish’s slider usage and complete lack of a change-up are still the oddballs.

Before playing in the U.S., Darvish pitched well over 1,000 innings in his last five years in the Japan Pacific League. Now, in two seasons in Major League Baseball he has pitched over 400 innings. So far, how he pitches has not affected his ability to stay healthy and rack up innings. Even with that in mind, the Rangers should wait and see how the next year or two plays out before ripping up Darvish’s current deal and replacing it with a new, longer one.

There is no bigger fan of Darvish than me. He is my favorite artist. I want him to be a Texas Ranger for the next eight, nine, or ten years. But signing him to an extension now, possible three or four years before he hits free agency would be foolish. It’s not about keeping the carrot in front of the horse, or capitalizing on a “contract year” mentality. It’s about patience and being prudent. So instead of looking at each year as pushing Darvish one year closer to free agency, think of each strikeout and start made without injury as pushing Darvish one step closer to remaining the Ace of the Texas Rangers for many more years to come.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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