Commentary

Yu Darvish a top-30 fantasy pitcher

Updated: December 20, 2011, 1:51 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcorft | ESPN.com

The free-agent pitching catch of the winter might have just hit the market, and the team that won his negotiating rights was smart to do so; it was the team that lost to free agency the pitcher previously regarded the winter's top catch, C.J. Wilson.

The Texas Rangers have won exclusive rights to work out a deal with Yu Darvish, and are officially on the clock, having 30 days to sign the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander.

Count on them doing so.

Remember, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was one of two GMs to travel to Japan to scout Darvish this past summer -- Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was the other -- so he clearly holds Darvish in high regard. It was that visit, in fact, that was the impetus for getting Darvish into my midseason keeper top 250, and for specifically profiling him in the final 2011 edition of "60 Feet 6 Inches"; the hints have been dropped for months that he'd make the leap to Major League Baseball.

Fact is, if you're not already familiar with the name Yu Darvish, you probably play primarily in redraft leagues and don't begin your preseason draft prep before spring training camps open. Darvish has been a topic of discussion for more than three years; heck, ESPN profiled the guy as far back as 2008.

Regarded as the "complete package" as far as pitching prospects go, Darvish reportedly has a fastball that averages between 92-95 mph, a plus slider/slurve and five other handy secondary pitches: two-seamer, cutter, curveball, splitter, changeup. Opinions on him range wildly -- as you might expect with any Japanese import -- but the prevailing opinion is that he's a solid No. 2 big league starter.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuIn the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Yu Darvish struck out 20 hitters in 13 innings to lead the competition. He posted an ERA of 2.08 and a WHIP of 1.00.

Statistically speaking, Darvish is an eye-popping prospect. He was widely regarded the No. 1 pitcher in his league at the time of his posting -- though he failed to win the Sawamura Award, the equivalent of our Cy Young, in 2011 -- as he led Nippon Professional Baseball in strikeouts (276) and WHIP (0.82) and managed a career-best 1.44 ERA last season. In the past five seasons combined, his ERA is 1.72, his WHIP 0.89, his strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio 9.52 and his average strikeouts by season 217. Don't take those numbers at face value, as there's an obvious difference in rules and competition in Japan, but they'll certainly grab you.

How Darvish's numbers will translate to our game is the debate, and one of the primary challenges for fantasy owners in 2012 is to measure said translation. Scouts openly compare his arrival -- in terms of both ability and impact on our game -- to that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, who came over from Japan following the 2006 season, then won 15 games with a 4.40 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 201 strikeouts in 32 starts as a 26-year-old "rookie" in 2007. To go back further, and Hideo Nomo might represent the best-case scenario: Nomo won 13 of 28 starts with a 2.54 ERA, a National League-best 236 K's and a 1.06 WHIP.

Darvish, who will be 25 come Opening Day, might well perform as well or better in 2012 than Matsuzaka did as a rookie, conceivably even approaching Nomo territory, which would mean an effective top-25 fantasy starting pitcher. Such a substantial change to his surroundings, however, as well as a significant adjustment in game play, will make him one of the highest risks in that group. Two things stand out as obvious worries:

• The lengthier MLB season, which could lead to possible late-season fatigue. Matsuzaka, for example, had a 3.79 ERA through his first 25 starts of 2007, generally the number he threw in Japan, but a 6.86 ERA in his next seven. Nomo, meanwhile, had a 1.91 ERA through Aug. 10, 1995, but a 4.09 mark thereafter. That's not enough evidence to say definitively that it will also happen to Darvish, but it's possible that fatigue played a part in either example.

• Japanese pitchers, as a whole, also haven't had a great track record of extended success in MLB. Again, there isn't a large enough list of examples to make any definitive measure of translations from Japan to MLB, nor to make a clear statement that Darvish will follow the same, rocky path as his predecessors. But nine Japanese pitchers -- picked based upon 30-plus career starts, Matsuzaka, Nomo, Hideki Irabu, Kazuhisa Ishii, Kenshin Kawakami, Hiroki Kuroda, Tomo Ohka, Mac Suzuki and Masato Yoshii -- experienced career struggles that might worry Darvish's keeper-league owners.

Year 1: 3.98 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.84 K/9, 8.32 H/9, 1.00 HR/9 collectively.
Year 2: 3.82 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.29 K/9, 8.05 H/9, 1.02 HR/9
Year 3: 4.91 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 6.83 K/9, 9.45 H/9, 1.20 HR/9
Year 4 and beyond: 4.55 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 6.68 K/9, 9.10 H/9, 1.23 HR/9

Perhaps owners freshly drafting/buying Darvish in keeper leagues this preseason shouldn't open their wallets to the extent that the Rangers will. The possible reward is substantial; the long-term risk might be equally so.

But for 2012 alone, Darvish is well worth fantasy consideration … so long as the hype train doesn't charge out of control. Although he's not officially under contract, I've slotted him in at No. 30 among starting pitchers in my early 2012 ranks (between Stephen Strasburg and Shaun Marcum) and No. 117 overall, directly behind Strasburg.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.