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Thursday, February 28, 2013
Why Yu Darvish will be a top-5 starter

By Mike Sheets
Special to ESPN.com

When Yu Darvish signed with the Texas Rangers last offseason, the hype among fantasy owners was substantial. And why not? Darvish was arguably the most highly regarded Japanese pitcher ever to come to the major leagues. In five seasons in the Japan Pacific League, he never posted an ERA above 1.88, and in 2011 he posted a 1.44 ERA and 0.82 WHIP with 276 strikeouts in 232 innings. On top of that, he was only 25 years old, so it was reasonable to think his best days were still ahead of him. The potential was exciting to think about.

Spring Fever

Darvish finished the 2012 season as the No. 30 starting pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater. Considering he was 34th in our preseason rankings, it's hard to say he fell short of expectations. He won 16 games, posted a 3.90 ERA and 1.28 WHIP, and struck out 221 batters in 191 1/3 innings. It was a good year. But Darvish wasn't the fantasy ace many envisioned.

As it turns out, the expectation that Darvish would be a true fantasy ace wasn't unrealistic; it was just a year early. The No. 1 thing holding Darvish back last season was an inability to consistently throw strikes. His BB/9 rate stood at 4.2, which was the sixth-worst mark in baseball among the 88 starting pitchers who qualified. He gets enough strikeouts to help offset the high walk rate -- his 10.4 K/9 rate ranked second only to Max Scherzer (11.1 K/9) -- but it's a problem, and one that will keep him from ace status if it isn't fixed.

But comparing Darvish's first- and second-half splits offers a glimmer of hope. While his BB/9 in the first half was 4.7, he knocked it down to 3.7 after the All-Star break. That's encouraging. However, we really see a difference when we look at Darvish's transformation in the last quarter of the season. In his final eight starts, which included the one-game playoff versus Baltimore, he sported a 2.20 ERA and 0.77 WHIP with 66 K's in 57 1/3 frames. The real kicker, though, is that he walked no more than two batters in any of those eight outings, posting a walk rate of 1.6. Simply put, Darvish was a different pitcher in those eight starts; he was, well, elite.

Naturally, there are problems with taking an eight-game stretch at the end of a season and drawing too many conclusions. Eight starts might be roughly one-fourth of a season for a starting pitcher, but it's still a small sample size. And it's not enough to say that the control Darvish exhibited in Japan finally carried over. Yes, he sported a 1.4 BB/9 in Japan in 2011, but Japanese hitters aren't encouraged to take pitches and draw walks like big league hitters are. Of the 19 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in the Pacific League last year, only three held a BB/9 rate over 2.7. Finally, as much as we like to sometimes pretend that a late-season breakout portends future success, that's often not the case.

In other words, expecting Darvish's newfound control to carry over into 2013 requires a leap of faith. That is, however, a leap you should take.

Yu Darvish
Once Yu Darvish fully settled in, he was lights-out.

First, now that Darvish has been in the big leagues for a year, the temptation is to treat him like any other starting pitcher. Don't. Remember, the differences between pitching in the Japan Pacific League and the major leagues are drastic. In addition to the vastly superior competition in the majors (which includes hitters who are encouraged to take pitches), Darvish had to deal with an uncommon amount of media attention, the simmering Texas heat and pitching every five days instead of every six, which is what he was accustomed to in Japan.

He also had to adjust to a strike zone that is widely considered to be smaller than the strike zone in the Pacific League, and a baseball that's slightly bigger than the one he threw in Japan. It's not a stretch to think it took Darvish much of the 2012 season to get fully acclimated to life in the big leagues, which leads me to believe that his late-season improvement, particularly in the control department, was real and at least somewhat sustainable.

While expecting Darvish to substantially improve his walk rate this season may seem like a stretch, just look at the career arcs of some of the top pitchers in fantasy. Clayton Kershaw posted a 4.4 BB/9 in 2008, his first season, and a 4.8 BB/9 in his second; last year his walk rate was 2.5. David Price held a 3.8 BB/9 in '09, his rookie season with the Rays; he posted a 2.5 walk rate last year. Matt Cain posted a 4.1 BB/9 in '06, his first full season with the Giants; last year it was 2.1. Granted, it took these guys more than a year to turn things around, but Darvish is already 26 and has been pitching professionally for six years. There's no reason to think he can't make that leap right now.

Then there's the catcher factor. According to a recent story on ESPNDallas.com, Darvish said catcher Geovany Soto was "a really important factor" in his second-half success. The numbers bear that out. During Darvish's eight-start stretch of dominance last year, Soto was behind the plate for all eight starts. During the course of the entire season, the Japanese import had a 2.35 ERA and held hitters to a .176 batting average when Soto was catching. With other catchers behind the plate, Darvish sported a 4.57 ERA and a .238 batting average-against. Those are drastic splits. This season, manager Ron Washington has said that Soto will be Darvish's personal catcher. That's obviously good news for fantasy owners and is yet another reason to be bullish on the right-hander this year.

It's also important to note that, even before we take Darvish's expected improvement into account, we already know his ceiling is pretty high. We know he's going to continue striking out hitters with regularity. In fact, according to Fangraphs.com, opposing hitters made contact on just 72.8 percent of Darvish's pitches they swung at, the lowest percentage in baseball. We also can bet he'll receive plenty of run support in Texas. After all, the Rangers scored the most runs in baseball last year, and they'll again have one of the game's most dangerous lineups, even without Josh Hamilton. And let's not forget about the Houston Astros joining the American League West this season. The Astros lost 107 games last year -- the most in baseball -- and could lose even more this season in the AL. The fact Darvish should get four or five starts against them this year is significant.

Admittedly, it's hard to poke holes in any of ESPN's preseason top-five starting pitchers -- Justin Verlander, Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg and Price -- but consider that three hurlers who ranked outside the preseason top-10 last year (Price, Cain and R.A. Dickey) finished 2012 in the top five. That's what I'm counting on Darvish doing this year. You don't have to draft him in the top five. You can, however, draft him with reasonable confidence that he'll finish the season there.