Yu Darvish has signed with the Texas Rangers after using up every last moment of the negotiating window. In addition to the $51.7 million bid paid to the Nippon Ham Fighters for the rights to talk to the Japanese phenom, the Rangers will also pay $60 million over six years to Darvish. It's difficult to pinpoint if he will be worth the total contract (just based on the hype, that seems like a potential steal), but a look into the projections for him could help sort things out.
First, some explanation is in order in regards to projections for pitchers from Japan. Forecasts for players in the majors (or coming from the minors) are easier, in the sense that enough of a sample -- thousands and thousands of players and player seasons -- has been built up, increasing our confidence in the fortunes augured. Not so for players coming from Japan, as the number of players and player seasons we work with is exponentially smaller. Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, explained this after the rights to Darvish were won:
Japan's professional league is a very high level of play, somewhere between Triple-A and the majors, but there's still a lot we don't know about how Japanese pitchers will fare in MLB. Going back through history, there are only 21 pitchers that had full-time jobs in Japan who went on to pitch 50 innings in the majors. That's the extent of our knowledge of how Japanese pitchers fare in the majors.
Some NPB imports have succeeded (Hideo Nomo pitched 12 years after transferring to MLB; Colby Lewis, while not Japanese, pitched in Japan before returning to succeed in MLB), others have seen mixed results (Daisuke Matsuzaka has been effective or difficult to watch, depending on his heatlh), and others (Kei Igawa) were never able to put it together. This isn't something local to Japan -- just like anywhere else in the world where there is baseball, there are Japanese pitchers who are better, worse, or somewhere in between. When it comes to projecting Japanese hurlers here in MLB, though, the scarcity issues with pitchers to analyze makes pinpointing a player's future difficult. It's no different than projecting the performance of say, a Cuban player who skips the minors for the majors.
That's why projections for players coming from Japan might be overly optimistic or pessimistic -- we probably just don't know enough yet, due to not having enough of a sample to work with. Two of the forecasts out for Darvish right now are those of Oliver (from Hardball Times) and Szymborski's ZiPS. The two have little in common, despite coming from the same data source -- Darvish's statistics from the NPB:
Given Darvish is projected to be above-average in strikeouts, but not by a whole lot, it's safe to say ZiPS sees his success coming due to his extreme groundball tendencies. Oliver on the other hand sees a transfer of almost Darvish's entire strikeout rate from Japan, along with those grounders, and predicts him to be one of the top pitchers in the majors, if not the very best. No pressure or anything, Yu.
On the surface, Oliver's projection comes off as far too optimistic, and ZiPS either spot-on or pessimistic, depending how you're feeling. As Jonah Keri said back in December, though, it's difficult to project players from a league where, "a young star like Ichiro can carry his numbers to MLB fame, but an MLB washout like Tuffy Rhodes can also go on to hit 55 homers in a single season in Japan." Darvish might actually be the best pitcher on the planet right now, as Oliver suggests, or maybe he's more ZiPS-flavored -- just the perfect replacement for the departed C.J. Wilson.
We haven't seen a pitcher like Darvish come over from Japan before, either, so direct comparisons to others don't necessarily apply. Between his deep repertoire (Patrick Newman of NPBTracker.com lists him as having a fastball, cutter, curve, shuuto, forkball, change-up, and slider, with speeds ranging up to 96 m.p.h. down to 60), his build (6-foot-5 and over 220 pounds), and his durability (he's averaged nearly 205 innings a year in his five seasons), he's what many scouts would consider to be a can't-miss success. He's also just 25 years old, meaning the Rangers are getting him in the prime years of his career. Would it be that surprising if a pitcher with great scouting reports, great results, and great projections was, well, great?
It's tough to get a read on how successful players transitioning from the NPB to MLB will be due to the lack of data, but with Darvish's background and past success, he seems like the easiest bet to win out of those the projection systems have made. Maybe Oliver is a little ahead of itself here, and maybe ZiPS is too pessimistic, even if it likes Darvish well enough. But without more pitchers like Darvish coming over, regardless of success or failure, we won't get any better at this.