26 April 2012

Yu Darvish and a Look at Early Dominant Pitching

Question: What do Tim Fortugno, Mariano Rivera, Bob Milacki, Tim Wakefield, Dennis Ribant and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal have in common?  

Answer: Whatever it is, Yu Darvish does too.  

Yu Darvish crossed the Pacific a few months ago at great expense to the Texas Rangers and bringing great expectations from his old fans in Japan, not to mention those in Texas and much of the baseball-loving public.
His record in Japan - 76-28 with a 1.72 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning over five seasons - was impeccable, literally.  There was nothing that could be found wrong with it.  His K/W ratio was nearly 5/1.  He allowed only 39 home runs in over 1000 Japan League innings.  He was remarkably healthy,durable, and effective, making at least 23 starts and averaging 15 Wins and 10 complete games per season.

So naturally he wanted to prove himself in the US, and who could blame him?  His Spring training stats - admittedly in just a handful of games - were largely more of the same: 22 strikeouts in 15 innings, and a 3.60 ERA.  But then the season started and some of the polish appeared to be missing form his game.

Though he was credited with a Win in his first start, he allowed five walks and 5 runs, all earned, in just 5.2 innings, and this against the woefully inept Seattle Mariners, a team that walks somewhat less often than Stephen Hawking and gets runs only slightly more often than a pair of Kevlar panty hose.

His next two starts, against the Twins and Tigers, were better (two earned runs in 12 total innings) but he still walked nine batters.  So it was fair to wonder what the Yankees - a team that can actually, you know, hit - would do when they faced him on Tuesday night.

Not much, it turns out.

Faced with the best offense in the majors in 2012, a team averaging nearly six runs per contest, Darvish delivered an array of pitches, none of which proved terribly appealing for the Yankees' bats.

Hard to blame them.  Darvish exhibited a fastball that averaged 93 mph and touched 96, but also threw a cutter, a slider, a splitter and a curve, all of which were responsible for at least one of his 10 strikeouts over 8.1 innings.  He also walked only two batters and though he allowed seven hits, nobody managed to score.

This of course begs the question of how much might we expect out of Darvish for the rest of his career.  Given that in just his 4th MLB appearance he nearly managed a 10-K shutout of the best offense in the majors, should we expect more of the same? Or is this a fluke?  

Getting back to my initial question, what does Yu Darvish have in common with that otherwise seemingly random and varied array of current and former major league pitchers?

Real Answer: They are among a group of 23 pitchers who, in one of their first five career appearances, racked up at least eight shutout innings with 10 or more strikeouts.  The full list:

Player            WAR    IP    Yrs
Juan Marichal      64   3507    16
Luis Tiant         60   3486    19
Mariano  Rivera    56   1218    17
Tim  Wakefield     32   3226    19
Pedro  Astacio     26   2197    15
Kerry  Wood        25   1374    14
J. Vander Meer     23   2105    13
Rudy May           20   2622    16
Jose DeLeon        16   1897    13
Connie Johnson     10    716     5
Dick Selma         10    841    10
Bob Shirley         9   1432    11
Dennis Rasmussen    9   1461    12
Dennis Bennett      8    863     7
Johnny Broaca       5    674     5
Bob Milacki         5    796     8
Dennis Ribant       4    519     6
Steve  Woodard      3    667     7
Dave Morehead       3    819     8
Wade  Davis         2    396     4
Karl Spooner        2    117     2
Tim Fortugno        0    110     3

The pitchers are ranked by career WAR, Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com's formula.  Clearly, the list shows some incredible talent and value, topped off by an actual Hall of Famer (Marichal) and a future one (Rivera), albeit one who is no longer a starting pitcher.  Luis Tiant was also a great pitcher for a long time and might have been in Cooperstown himself if a few things had broken differently (or not broken, like his scapula in 1970) in his career. 

Though the quality level drops off quite a bit after that, lots of guys would kill to have had the careers of Tim Wakefield (200 major league Wins, two World Series rings, one dramatic walk-off homer to Aaron Boone) or even Pedro Astacio, who held a bunch of Rockies pitching records before Ubaldo Jiminez came along.  Kerry Wood won the 1998 Rookie of the Year award, and though he had some injury troubles and only briefly became the pitcher everyone anticipated, pitching in the major leagues for a decade and a half is nothing to sneeze at.

Other notables on the list include Johnny Vander Meer, who is the only pitcher in MLB history to throw consecutive no-hitters, and led the NL in strikeouts for three consecutive years.  Rudy May was a quintessential LAIM for most of his career, though he did win an ERA title in 1980 with the Yankees.  Ditto for DeLeon, who led the league in strikeouts once, but also losses twice.

What's left is a baker's dozen worth of pitchers offering almost every sort of disappointment imaginable.  Connie Johnson pitched a decade in the Negro Leagues and fought in WWII for before making it to the majors, at which point his best years were already behind him.  Dick Selma got the first win in Padres history, a 12-K shutout on opening day in 1969, but otherwise had a fairly nondescript career as a swingman for a decade that ended when he was just 30 years old.

Bob Shirley is probably less famous for anything he ever did on a pitching mound than he is for the June 1987 clubhouse wrestling match that landed Donnie Baseball on the disabled list with two bulging disks in his back - an injury that would sap his power and probably cost him his shot at the Hall of Fame.  (Mattingly averaged .337 with 30 homers for the four previous years but just .292 with 12 homers for the rest of his career.) Shirley was released just days later, even though the report of the scuffle was denied by both the Yankees and the players.  He tossed only seven more innings in the majors.

Rasmussen was another LAIM, though not as good as May or DeLeon.  Bennett was a nondescript swingman/spot starter whose baseball career ended before he was 30.  Coincidentally, he died almost exactly a month ago.  Milacki racked up 243 innings in his first full season (1989) and never had another full, healthy year.  (The Orioles in those days burned through young pitchers' arms like a disturbed kid with a magnifying glass and an ant farm: Milacki, Pete Harnish, Jeff Ballard, Ben McDonald...Curt Schilling and Joe Table should thank their lucky stars they got out of there when they did.  Mike Mussina managed to get through his injuries in 1993, but he seems to be the exception to the rule.)

Morehead, Fortugno, and Woodard were true flukes, never again showing anything like the kind of talent they exhibited in their early dominant outing.  Ribant was rumored to have used a spitball, which may explain his occasional ability to baffle opposing batters (including a perfect game in the minors).  Wade Davis is still pitching and still young, but probably trade bait for the Rays, who desperately need bats.

Karl Spooner is the only one to appear on the list twice, tossing consecutive complete game shutouts in his first two major league games, allowing only seven hits and six walks with 27 K's in 18 innings.  He looked like the Next Big Thing, but he failed to properly warm up in a game the following spring, hurt his arm, and was never the same.

Johnny Broaca might be the oddest, bitterest case of all.  He was a useful member of the rotation for some pretty good Yankees teams in the 1930's, but jumped ship in his fourth season over apparent marital troubles.  He attempted an unsuccessful comeback with Cleveland a few years later, but to no avail, and apparently spent the rest of his days as a reclusive day laborer in a little town in Massachusetts, lest his ex-wife should get any money out of him.  Weird.  And sad.

But not likely the fate of Yu Darvish, which after all, was the point of this post.

And while I'm not sure we're really any closer to having the answer to that question now as opposed to when we started this inquiry, I'm awfully fascinated by some of the results.  I don't expect Darvish to end up in the Hall of Fame some day, but neither do I think that he will hurt his arm and spend his retirement shoveling coal to spite his former spouse.  Heck, I'm not even sure if he's married!

What this shows us, if anything, is that Darvish seems to be capable of a career that could last 10-15 years in the majors.  Flashes of brilliance like his performance against the Yankees on Tuesday night, particularly at such an early stage in his major league career, suggest a pitcher capable of great things, and if not that, at least a decade or so of usefulness and value in the majors. 

The Rangers are fortunate to have him early in his career, before the league has a chance to figure him out.  Of course, if you can throw a fastball at 95 mph - and have four other pitches you can not only throw for strikes but also use to whiff major league hitters - well, there's not much likelihood that a tour around the AL is going to tell hitters anything other than that this guy is really, really good.


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