Is Yu Darvish a top ten starting pitcher in 2013?
Entering the 2012 season, Yu Darvish was a pre-draft sleeper for many fantasy players. The 25 year old Japanese import averaged 15 wins, 216 strikeouts, and a 1.74 ERA in his five professional seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He certainly looked the part of an ace, standing an imposing 6'5", 215 pounds, armed with a plus fastball, and more pitches than a used car salesman. For those who reached for his services on draft day, he probably didn't meet expectations, finishing with a line of 16 W / 3.90 ERA / 1.28 WHIP / 221 K, good for the 29th best starting pitcher on ESPN's Player Rater. The question fantasy players have to ask themselves entering 2013, is how much can Darvish improve in his sophomore campaign? Can he make the leap to and become a top ten starting pitcher?
The Case for Darvish
One of the first things I like to do when evaluating a pitcher is to ignore the surface stats (i.e. ERA, W) and look at the underlying numbers, as those numbers are more informative as per a pitcher's true skill set. With that said, there is a lot to like in Darvish's skill set. Darvish posted a K/9 of 10.40, which was third amongst starters behind Stephen Strasburg (11.13) and Max Scherzer (11.08), posted an average fastball velocity of 92.6 mph (well above average for a starter), an O-Swing% (outside swing percentage, or percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) of 30.8%, and a SwStr% (Swinging Strike Percentage, or percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed) of 11.8%.
To put those metrics into perspective, Clayton Kershaw posted an O-Swing% and SwStr% of 30.9% and 11.0% respectively, confirming the fact that Darvish has some of the filthiest stuff in league, and that his lofty K-rate is fully sustainable. Darvish didn't show any significant platoon splits, as RHB batters batted a mere .208 against him, while LHB batters batted .228. Darvish's batted ball profile of 22/46/32 (LD/GB/FB) is very attractive as well. I tend to value pitchers with higher ground ball rates, as it's difficult to surrender homeruns if you're consistently keeping the ball on the ground. Darvish's GB rate of 46% is very good (GB rates over 50% typically characterize groundball pitchers), and allows for Darvish to take advantage of the plus defenders behind him (i.e. Beltre, Andrus), as well as mitigate some of the Arlington park factor (venue yielded the 4th most runs in 2012).
Darvish posted a LOB% (Left On Base Percentage) of 70.5% (for context the league average is typically around 70%), which is low for a pitcher who induces as many groundballs (high potential for double plays) and strikes out such a high percentage of batters faced (27.1%). I would expect Darvish to improve upon this next season, and post a LOB% more in line with that of a Justin Verlander (76.4%), Stephen Strasburg (75.5%), or Felix Hernandez (75.0%), all of whom are RHP power pitchers with strong K-rates, solid groundball rates, and if anything, weaker infield defenses behind them.
Ignoring ERA, and focusing on Darvish's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitcher), xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitcher), and SIERRA (Skill Independent ERA), Darvish posted metrics of 3.29, 3.52, and 3.55 respectively, all which were well below his ERA of 3.90. What that tells me is Darvish pitched better than his ERA indicates, as all three metrics more accurately correlate with future ERA (SIERRA representing the highest correlating metric of the trio). Assuming Darvish's 2013 ERA regresses towards the aforementioned metrics, now we're talking about a pitcher with a mid-3s ERA, as opposed to a pitcher with an ERA closer to league average (league average ERA was 4.01 in 2012).
The Case Against Darvish
Even if Darvish's ERA regresses towards the underlying numbers, I still don't think it's enough for him to make the leap to that of a top 10 starter. Darvish's BB/9 was a pedestrian 4.19 last season (which will prevent him from posting elite WHIPs until resolved), and despite the build of a workhorse, he was far from it, only tossing 191.1 innings (tied for 42nd in innings pitched amongst qualified starters). Despite finishing third in K/9, Darvish finished 7th in strikeouts (221) due to the lack of innings pitched.
While Texas was probably protective of their investment in year one, the main culprit in his lack of innings was that BB-rate, which drove pitch counts, and prevented Darvish from pitching deep into games. Interestingly enough, control was never a problem for Darvish while pitching in Japan. In fact, Darvish averaged a BB-rate of 1.96 during his five pro seasons, but I've learned to take Japanese numbers with a grain of salt (see Matsuzaka, Daisuke), as said numbers historically don' translate very well to the Majors, where batters are typically more disciplined, and less likely to chase pitches outside the strike zone. It's not the stuff that will prevent Darvish from making the jump, it's the approach. Darvish needs to be more aggressive and attack hitters, rather than nibble on the corners and give away free bags via the walk.
Darvish finished 2012 on a high note. From August 17th (36.1 IP, so small sample size caveats apply) through season's end, Darvish posted an xFIP of 2.66 (anything below 2.90 is generally considered elite), a BAA (batting average against) of .158, a WHIP of 0.78, and a K:BB ratio of 49:9, all while averaging 7 innings per outing. Some of that was schedule driven, with a combined four games coming against the Mariners, Rays, and Royals, but the key takeaway was the improved command. If Darvish can carry that forward into 2013, then he's got an outside shot at cracking the top ten if everything fell into place, however, I view Darvish as strong SP3, with SP2 upside in 10-team leagues, and would prefer to anchor my staff around a more proven commodity on draft day.
Until Darvish proves he can cut back on the walks and work deeper into games more consistently, his ERA, WHIP, and lack of innings pitched will prevent him from sniffing the top ten in my opinion.
By Jim Farley