Two scoreless innings on March 7 are as meaningless an indicator as baseball can offer, but know this about Yu Darvish:
He will not be another Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Darvish, the newest Japanese sensation, pitches more aggressively than Matsuzaka, displays greater athleticism, seems more comfortable with his teammates.
That isn’t to guarantee that Darvish will be a bigger success with the Texas Rangers than Matsuzaka has been for the Boston Red Sox. But let’s just say that the early signs are good.
The buzz after Darvish’s spring debut against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday was about his expansive repertoire. Did he throw six different pitches? Seven? Four with multiple variations?
There also was talk of his competitive arrogance after Darvish, through his interpreter, was dismissive of Wil Venable’s booming double off the center-field wall, citing the wind and dry air.
“I squared it up pretty good — he was lucky it didn’t go out,” said Venable, who later added, “Maybe his perception of reality isn’t as right on … no comment.”
Entertaining stuff, but the biggest takeaway from Darvish’s debut was the way he reacted to Venable’s leadoff double in the second, which, if not for the wall, indeed may have landed in Japan.
Darvish, 25, stayed poised, came right back with another fastball and made two sterling plays in the field that helped him escape the inning.
On the first, Darvish got quickly to the bag on a groundball to first baseman Michael Young, then alertly checked the runner at third. On the second, he used his 6-foot-5 frame to make a leaping stab of a one-hopper, then started a rundown to get the second out.
A strikeout of John Baker on a wicked breaking ball, and the inning was over.
“You watch him cover first, run around the field — he’s a good athlete,” said Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin. “He’s definitely more athletic than some of the Japanese pitchers we’ve seen.”
Darvish’s raw numbers were impressive enough: He threw 36 pitches, 26 for strikes, nine swinging. His fastball ranged from 91 to 95 mph, and he repeatedly got ahead, throwing first-pitch strikes to seven of his eight hitters.
He will not be Matsuzaka, nibbling on the edges, turning each inning into a mini-series. Yet, it will be fascinating to see how Darvish uses his many weapons from start to start.
On Wednesday, Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said that Darvish scrapped his four-seam changeup in the bullpen and threw his split-fingered version instead.
Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson said Darvish has “seven pitches he can embarrass you with.” Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba said he called six, joking that he thought about taking his glove off and using two hands to give signs.
Maddux listed nine different pitches — sort of.
“Four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter, so three different fastballs,” Maddux said. “Four-seam change, split change — that’s two different changeups. Hard curve, slow curve. Sweeping slider, down slider. Really, he’s got four pitches, but variations of each pitch.”
In any case, the Rangers want Darvish to pitch off his fastball; both Young and Torrealba noted that if Darvish commands the pitch, he will get outs. Maddux called Darvish a “student of the game,” saying that he was eager to learn hitters’ strengths and weaknesses.
Hey, Matsuzaka had a 2.19 ERA in five starts his first spring with the Red Sox and won 33 games his first two seasons before falling out of shape, losing confidence and requiring Tommy John surgery. But at this early stage, the pitching part sure doesn’t look like it will be a problem for Darvish.
As for the cultural transition, so far, so good.
Matsuzaka drew criticism in Boston for following his own program, speaking to fellow Red Sox only with an interpreter, isolating himself from his teammates. Darvish is fortunate that the Rangers’ clubhouse is one of the most accommodating in the majors. But by all accounts, he’s trying to build relationships, too.
“The biggest thing is, you want the guy to make an effort,” Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said. “He has definitely done that. He doesn’t have his translator with him all the time. He picks at us, we pick at him. He wants to fit in. So far, he’s doing a good job doing that.”
Young noted that Darvish “bounces around from guy to guy to get to know everybody.” In addition, the pitcher is trying to learn both English and Spanish, further endearing himself to his new teammates.
“His Spanish is probably better than mine,” Young said, smiling.
What does it all mean? Check back in June, in September, over the next six years. The Rangers paid nearly $108 million for Darvish, combining his $51.7 million posting fee and $56 million contract. As the Padres’ Hudson said, the pitcher is carrying the expectations of two countries.
“Ichiro kind of set that bar, getting 900 hits a year,” Hudson joked. “(Darvish) has got to go out and win the Cy Young.”
That’s too much to ask, particularly in Year One. But here’s betting that Darvish will be fun to watch. A lot more fun than Matsuzaka.