Roll The Dice With Yu

**ORIGINAL POSTED DATE 8/15/12**

The comparisons started as soon as he became eligible for the blind bidding process this previous off-season. Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsusaka were the most prolific pitchers in Japanese professional baseball history and the comparisons are  understandable. The experts told us that the pitchers are not
comparable because they are two completely different types of pitchers. 
Dice-K relied on fooling the hitters with an array of pitches including the much-ballyhooed gyroball. We saw that Dice-K needed gimmicks and movement to get major league hitters out and it appeared it was just a matter of time until the league caught up to him and his career would be over. Yu Darvish was said to have a fastball that he could throw by big league hitters and didn’t need to nibble as much as Dice-K. He could throw more pitches in the zone and rely on his 6 or 7 different pitches to create movement and timing issues for the hitters. His 6-5 frame would hold up over the course of the grueling MLB season much better than the aforementioned Dice-K. So it seemed by the time Darvish made his introductory press conference with the Texas Rangers on January 20th, the comparisons were a moot point. But, what about how these two fared during their transition from professional baseball in Japan to the version played here in the states? Those comps are a fair and valid measurement to show more about the transitional process and less about the pitchers specifically compared to one another. 

Much has been written recently about Darvish and his inconsistency with the fastball command and his high walk rate. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, wrote a fantastic article (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/yu-darvishs-bad-command-comparables/) chronicling Darvish’s terrible BB% thus far in the season and the dangers that come with such a high percentage. The Rangers no doubt have some concern about how this might affect his long-term success in Arlington. It’s easy to shrug it off as part of the first year adjustment period, but at what point does it become an epidemic?

As previously mentioned, I agree with all of the variables that separate Yu and Dice-K as far as stuff and make-up are concerned, but I think it is worth examining the statistics from their final year in Japan to their first years in the show. Dice-K made his Red Sox debut in 2007 after pitching previously for the Seibu Lions in the Japanese Pacific League. It’s a fair assessment to say that Dice-K had two very effective seasons for the Sox before injuries took over and he has never really been effective since.  Because of the trend that Darvish is establishing I chose to focus on statistical lines that measure the value of throwing strikes and minimizing free passes. First let’s look at each pitchers final season statistics in Japan.

Final season stats in Japan: 
While Darvish threw almost 50 more innings than Dice-K, his walk to strikeout ratio that season is herculean, regardless of the league. By comparison, in 2011 Dan Haren of the Angels threw 238.1 innings and only had 33 walks followed closely by Roy Halladay throwing 233.2 innings with only 35 walks. It’s easy to see how Darvish had the reputation he did with those type of numbers. Their walk rates in Japan indicated an ability to command all of their pitches and have stuff to strike out a high percentage. Those types of ratios are almost always indicative of a successful season for a pitcher and Dice-K and Darvish achieved that success in their final year in Japan. Using Baseball Reference’s filtering feature, I was able to
compare Dice-K’s first 22 starts (144 IP) to Darvish’s first 22 starts (140 IP) looking at the same statistics:
First 22 Starts in MLB
The obvious observations are that Darvish is on the wrong side of the numbers in all of the categories besides strikeouts, but both pitchers experienced an increase in these numbers during these two seasons. Dice-K saw an increase of 1.48 walks per 9 innings pitched while Darvish’s increased to 3.69 walks more per 9 innings than he had in Japan. The concern is not that Darvish is walking more batters than he did in Japan, that was expected, but the amount of walks per 9 innings is sprinting in the wrong direction. The argument that Dice-K nibbled and pitched around hitters can be made about Darvish looking at these numbers. Not only is Darvish walking more batters than Dice-K, but at more than double the rate of increase. But, a high strikeout number still gives hope that Darvish has the stuff to overcome these walks once he figures it all out. Matsuzaka would finish his rookie season with 80 walks and a walk rate of 3.52 per 9 innings pitched. Assuming Darvish continues the same pace he will finish the regular season with 119 walks and a walk rate of 5.36 per 9 innings pitched (200 IP). The last time a pitcher had more than 100 walks in a single season (throwing at least 200 innings), was Doug Davis in 2009 for the Diamondbacks.

The next myth to examine about the comparisons between these two pitchers is that Dice-K didn’t have the ability to create swing and misses with his fastball and relied more on deception, while Darvish can throw the heater by more hitters. Using the same range of starts, I compared first the contact percentages and swing strike percentages between the two pitchers. I used the four common pitches they shared, according to FanGraphs data. (FA-fastball, FC-cutter, SL-slider,CU-curve)

It is also worth noting that Dice-K’s data is for the entire 2007 season because filtering Pitch F/X data from previous seasons is unavailable.

Overall Contact %

The alarming information for Ranger fans from this graph is that Dice-K had less contact on his fastball than Darvish has despite the fact that Dice-K was a finesse guy who relied on gimmicks. Logic says that Darvish should have less contact on his fastball because it is a better pitch than Dice-K’s. Command issues lead to pitching behind in the count and that will always swing these statistics in favor of the hitters. But, before we push the panic button let’s look at how many swing and misses Darvish has been able to generate compared to Dice-K in 2007.
Swing Strike % (% of total pitches a batter swings and misses on)
It’s obvious to tell based on this data, that Darvish has a devastating slider that is his obvious out pitch, but much like the previous chart it is still concerning that he isn’t missing more bats with his fastball. Once again, for the guy who is supposed to be more of a power guy than Dice-K was, these numbers don’t indicate that theory. One of the ways these numbers may improve for Darvish is if he can get ahead of hitters and keep the hitters from sitting on the fastball in fastball counts. Darvish throws his fastball in the strike zone only 50.4% of the time and has the 25th worst percentage in terms of throwing strikes with all pitches among pitchers with at least 100 IP.

On a positive note though, Darvish does has the 14th best swinging strike percentage in all of baseball (10.8%). It’s impossible to make this list without having the ability to dominate hitters at times during the season with plus stuff. But, a baseball career is all about adjustments and everyone who has seen Darvishpitch knows he needs to throw more strikes with his fastball. Though I think it’s safe to say that the statistical comparisons between Darvish and Dice-K are not as far fetched as we originally thought. Both pitchers dominated Japanese baseball, struggled with command in their first big league season, and saw an increase in ERA and WHIP, but hopefully the comparisons stop there.

My message was not intended to say that Darvish is doomed for the same struggles Dice-K has battled since his second season. It’s just interesting to see the statistical comparisons in their early transitional periods to big league baseball. The biggest fear for Ranger fans concerning Darvish is that he will be a bust like Dice-K. While these numbers do not show that this bust is inevitable, the future for Yu doesappear to be dicey (pun intended). Baseball is all about adjustments and hopefully we will see Darvish continue to adjust and find that fastball command that he so badly needs. 

Jeff Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Jeff.Johnson@ShutDownInning.com or on Twitter @Houstonhog.
Jeff Johnson

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