All across baseball, they're talking about Yu. Not you. Don't be so self-absorbed. They're talking about Yu.
They see big things and big money on the horizon for Yu. They think Yu can be a star. Heck, they already know that far away, in a foreign land, teenage girls and grown men alike swoon over Yu. It would appear, then, that this would be a good time for getting to know Yu, getting to know all about Yu. Allow us to help you. This Yu of which we speak is Yu Darvish, the lank-bodied, long-locked wunderkind who has spent the past seven seasons terrorizing Japanese Pacific League hitters. The 25-year-old right-hander has not pitched in the Major Leagues and yet just might wind up becoming the sport's most coveted free-agent arm this winter. The confident kid of half-Iranian, half-Japanese descent, his exotic features and marriage to and separation from a movie starlet have made him a tabloid sensation overseas. And above all else, the guy who just might compel your favorite team to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million for the promise of a single premise -- one articulated by Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, who was Yu's first professional manager in Japan. "The day that Darvish pitched," Hillman said, "was a day we expected to win. And the day that Darvish pitched was a day the other team did not count on winning." So, can we count on Yu pitching stateside? With Darvish having been posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters, there is a 5 p.m. ET deadline on Wednesday for Major League teams to submit a bid to speak with him about a contract. "Nippon Ham can't really afford him," Robert Whiting, an author and expert on Japanese baseball, said in an e-mail. "By posting Darvish, Nippon Ham could use a nice infusion of cash and the problem of his salary would disappear," Darvish, though, has financial issues of his own to consider. He is in the midst of a divorce from his wife, Saeko, an actress. The two were married in 2007 in what the Japanese press has called a "shotgun wedding," and Saeko's unbridled attitude and dress has reportedly clashed with the conservative viewpoints of Yu's Iranian father, Farsad. It has been speculated that Farsad wants the divorce to be completed before Yu pitches in the Majors, because he doesn't want Saeko to have a claim to any portion of Yu's MLB salary. Clearly, it's complex. Darvish hired Arn Tellem as his agent in the U.S. and Don Nomura as his agent in Japan to deal with Nippon Ham. And with the posting fee and the salary required to secure Darvish's services, get ready for an enormous investment.
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Five years ago, the Red Sox famously spent a total of $103.1 million to land Daisuke Matsuzaka -- $51.1 million to talk to him, $52 million to sign him to a six-year contract. And though Major League executives are understandably shaken by the past precedents of Matsuzaka -- who is out with Tommy John surgery -- and Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu, among others, Darvish has attracted enough interest to lead many to believe this could be the second-coming of the Dice-K deal.
In fact, this could eclipse it.
"The history has not been good there," one evaluator said of Japanese imports, "but I do think that this guy is a step above."
Look at the stats.
Darvish, a two-time league MVP, is the only pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball history to post a sub-2.00 ERA for five consecutive seasons, including his 1.44 mark this year. He has had a WHIP of 0.90 or lower three times, and, as a starter, he has struck out 4.4 batters for every one he has walked.
The stats, though, are spoiled in some measure by the competition. In Japan, the mound is softer, the talent is tamer, the strike zones are wider.
So look at the stuff.
Darvish has shown a consistent ability to throw his fastball in the high 90s, even late in games, and he has a dizzying array of breaking balls, a changeup, and even a backup slider that was oft-referred to as a "gyroball" when Dice-K came to the States (the Japanese call it a "shuuto").
"When you look at a pitcher," the evaluator said, "stuff is stuff. I've got to believe in the stuff."
Unlike Dice-K, Darvish has shown more aggression and less nibbling with his fastball. He also has more leverage, because of his 6-foot-5 frame -- one he has augmented with quite a few pounds of muscle in recent years. Darvish has reportedly bulked up by about 20 pounds in the past year, and he has said he wants to add another 20. His large features could be an asset.
"The American ball feels bigger and is more slippery," Hillman said. "He's got big hands that will help him adjust."
And then there's this. Darvish is said to have thrown an 85-mph fastball -- with his left hand.
All told, the kid's an intriguing talent, even with past import imperfections taken into account.
"He has a lot of 140-pitch games," Whiting wrote, "but he doesn't overdo it in practice like some others in Japan. He's healthy. When [Hideo] Nomo went to the States, he had already had serious arm trouble, including surgery, and had lost speed off his fastball. Also, Darvish is more level-headed and less cocky than Matsuzaka."
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The growing thought among experts and evaluators is that Darvish has both the mental and physical makeup to succeed mightily.
Yu's upbringing helps. His parents met at Eckerd College, a liberal-arts school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and they've raised him to be culturally well-seasoned. He has a pleasant personality, has been generous in his donations to charity (particularly after the Tohoku earthquake this year) and is a good teammate who likes to play pranks on his peers.
"He enjoys having a good time," said Micah Hoffpauir, a former Cubs outfielder who played with Darvish this year. "I'm sure if he comes -- or when he comes -- to the States he'll be a little standoffish to begin with. But as the season progresses, I think he'll blend in perfectly."
Because of his mixed heritage (the full family name is Darvishsefad), unique facial features and flowing locks, Yu stands out from the crowd. His image has been used in advertisements for everything from coffee to hairspray, and he once posed semi-nude in a women's lifestyle magazine.
And because of his baseball talent, evident at an early age, he's been the subject of great hype and hounding since his teenage years.
"In Japan," Hoffpauir said, "you're in the public eye a lot more than you are in the States. There's not a big following for other sports. Baseball's the big sport. If you're a superstar in baseball, you're a very important person. So the expectations on him have been so high for so long, I don't think he'll have a problem with the pressures in the States."
On the mound, Yu is emotional, much more than Dice-K or the others who have come here before. He pumps his fist after strikeouts, and he has a confident swagger to his stride.
"You want guys like that toeing the rubber for you," Hillman said. "Yu is just one of those kids who is ready for any challenge. From a personality standpoint, the bigger the challenge, the bigger the stage, the more he's going to dig down deep to compete."
It is very likely Darvish will soon be competing on the big league stage. And it is clear that many in and around the game think he will be worth every penny coming to him and Nippon Ham.
They believe in Yu.
|"The day that [Yu] Darvish pitched was a day we expected to win. And the day that Darvish pitched was a day the other team did not count on winning."|
|-- Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, Darvish's first professional manager|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.