Yu Darvish: Big Game Pitcher

In the wake of the Yu Darvish signing, it feels as though the baseball pundit community has established two requirements for any report on the Cubs’ new ace…

— At least one obvious pun on his first name such as “Yu the man now, dawg.”

(If it wasn’t already abundantly obvious, this makes it clear that the sportswriting profession is essentially 10 thousand Abbotts in search of a Costello.)

— A reference to his abysmal World Series performance and subsequent doubts about his ability to handle the pressure of championship games.

(Because sports punditry is the kind of profession where it’s considered normal to have your character questioned by a grown man who insists that on being called “Mad Dog.”)

It’s no secret that Darvish’s World Series washout was a powerfully lasting image, especially since his five runs allowed in 1.2 innings essentially ended Game 7 before the bottom of the second. In fact, Theo Epstein cited it as a reason why Darvish is wearing a Cubs uniform today:

“I felt bad for him in the World Series, but I also felt it might be an opportunity if other teams overreact to that.”

Reading a bit between the lines, the fact that the Cubs were able to pounce on Darvish’s availability indicates that this was almost definitely the case.

Now chances are that if you’re stopping by this site, I don’t need to tell you about the folly of using one or two game samples to draw conclusions about a player’s ability. But just to hammer that point home, riddle me this: would you turn down an otherwise competent pitcher just because he put up a 13.50 ERA, a 2.318 WHIP, and 4.9 BB/9 in his first two postseason starts?

Well, congratulations! You just got rid of Greg Maddux.

In other news, the Tribune Company would like to hire you to be their 1992 General Manager. And Jose Guzman’s agent is on line one…

Beyond the small sample size argument, sports media’s finest hot takers have predictably used the World Series to imply that Darvish lacks the guts required of a true October hero. This line of thinking was probably best summed up by the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, who will never experience writer’s block as long as he has the first thought that pops into his head and a laptop without a delete key:

“But something happened to him on that big stage. He suddenly appeared uneasy at the thought of pitching under those bright lights. There was a marked unsteadiness in his words and body language. He seemed to lose his nerve.”

Based on that paragraph, I’m going to say that it appears the Dodgers lost the World Series when they made the questionable decision to send Bill Plaschke out to talk to Yu Darvish on the mound instead of Dave Roberts. But hey, at least Plaschke apparently speaks flawless Japanese! This will certainly come in handy the next time Around the Horn matches him up against Pikachu.

This particular taek could’ve written itself, and the fact that it has been revived so frequently means that Darvish is, unfortunately, going to have to spend the rest of his career living it down. But when you consider the totality of that career, it becomes clear that this is not only unfair to Darvish, it’s quite a myopic way of looking at things. As has been pointed out several times, Darvish pitched quite well in last year’s NLDS and NLCS. He’s still really hard to hit when batters don’t know what’s coming.

But more importantly, Plaschke’s column and those espousing similar “Darvish folds under pressure” takes reek of uncomfortable jingoism. This apparently will come as news to this crowd, but it turns out that Darvish also played baseball while he lived in Japan. Quite a few games, in fact!

And even a cursory look at his Japanese career reveals that Darvish has been pitching in big games since the age when the most pressure-packed moment for most of his peers was taking a Buzzfeed quiz on which Jonas Brother they were. One of the biggest athletic events in Japan is the annual Koshien Tournament–a high school baseball invitational that frequently gets compared to March Madness. And it was under the bright lights of this environment where Darvish first began to make his name as a teenage wunderkind.

With the eyes of an entire nation watching high school baseball, the tournament itself was intense enough. But on top of that, in 2004 Darvish had to perform while being evaluated by scouts from the Dodgers, Mets, and Angels in addition to those from Nippon Professional Baseball. So how did the player Plaschke painted as a frightened babe in the woods perform in this environment?

He threw a no-hitter, allowing only three baserunners and striking out 12. He was all of 17 years old.

Darvish followed that up by leading his high school on a charge through Japan’s Summer Championship tournament with two complete game shutouts in the first two rounds, only to be eliminated when an infield error with two outs in the ninth ruined his attempt at a third.

But in all my research of his high school career, I unfortunately couldn’t find any account about the steadiness of Darvish’s words from a writer known for losing debates with Jay Mariotti. So it’s hard to definitively conclude whether he was properly courageous.

The big games didn’t stop coming when Darvish turned pro and joined the Nippon Ham Fighters in their mission to keep kosher harder than it’s ever been kept before. In his sophomore NPB season in 2006, Darvish helped the Fighters clinch their first Pacific League pennant in 25 years. And thus he found himself starting Game 1 of the Japan Series at the ripe old age of 19.

It did not go well, with the teenage phenom surrendering three runs over six innings as Nippon Ham dropped the opener 4-2. However, the Fighters rebounded to take the next three games against the Chunichi Dragons and Darvish was tapped to start a potential clincher in Game 5.

This time he delivered, allowing only a single run in 7.1 innings with six strikeouts as Nippon Ham triumphed 4-1. So just to recap: Darvish was pitching in a championship series in his homeland. He had rebounded from a disappointing first outing to deliver his team their first Japan Series triumph since 1962. And he did all of this before he turned 20.

In other words: typical choke artist.

And that was just the first instance of Darvish stepping up his performance in the biggest possible games. In 2007, the Fighters found themselves right back in the Japan Series to defend their title. Once again, Yu Darvish was tapped to pitch Game 1, and this time he dominated.

In his first Japan Series complete game, Darvish allowed Chunichi only four hits in a 3-1 victory. Furthermore, the Fighters ace struck out 13, which tied a Japan Series record for a nine-inning game. Unfortunately for Nippon Ham, this Series played out in reverse with the Dragons winning the next three in a row. Suddenly, Darvish was the only thing standing between the Fighters and elimination.

Again, he stepped his game up when it mattered most. Darvish pitched seven stellar innings, allowing only one run and striking out 11. The only problem was that according to 2007 exchange rates, Chunichi pitchers Daisuke Yamai and Hitoki Iwase were collectively worth one Don Larsen as they combined to pitch a perfect game and clinch the series for the Dragons.

There wasn’t much more Darvish could do to show that he could deliver under on the biggest stage, amassing a 1.13 ERA and a Japan Series record 24 strikeouts. For his efforts, Darvish took home the Fighting Spirit Award–NPB’s attempt to cheer up the MVP from the losing team by giving him a trophy that sounds like it got its name only because the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence was already taken.

In 2009, Darvish made his third and final appearance in the Japan Series and this one might have been his most impressive of all. After being shut down for the regular season on September 20 with back and shoulder issues, Darvish surprised everyone by taking the mound on November 1 to start Game 2. And while he conceded to his injury by largely eschewing his fastball, Darvish delivered just what the Fighters needed by allowing only two runs over six innings as Nippon Ham defeated the Yomiuri Giants 4-2.

Afterwards, he admitted that playing the biggest game of the year while relying mainly on his off-speed repertoire weighed on his mind, telling the media that “I didn’t know if I could throw strikes. That was a major concern.” It turned out that the answer was an emphatic yes, as Darvish struck out seven and walked none.

And then there was this…once the Series was over, it was discovered that Darvish also pitched this game with a stress fracture in his right index finger. Ye gods. Essentially, Darvish’s right arm in 2009 was in the same condition as Curt Schilling’s ankle in 2004 or Curt Schilling’s brain in 2018. Yet he still managed to come through for his team in the most important game the Fighters would play all year.

Granted, the competition Darvish faced in NPB was not the constant parade of elite talent that populates Major League Baseball. But jackwagons like Plaschke and Mad Dog Russo have made his World Series performance a question of Darvish’s bravery and mental fortitude. And a look at his career in full reveals that when taken as a whole, his postseason performance is actually a sharp rebuke to anyone who asserts that he wilts under pressure and can’t be counted on in the biggest games.

Let’s hope that the Cubs provide him ample opportunity to continue doing just that.

Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports

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Christopher Hunt

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