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Featured T.R.'s Memoirs

Boys of Arlington: Yu Darvish, Japanese royalty in Texas

(Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back on pitcher Yu Darvish’s time in Texas and his quest to fulfill all those giddy predictions.

 

Randy Johnson was one of the most dominating and intimidating pitchers in the history of baseball and is now enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

He won five Cy Young Awards and is second all-time in career strikeouts. Johnson has plenty of other numbers and accolades on his resume, but suffice it to say, he enjoyed an incredibly successful career.

He did so by throwing a fastball in the upper 90s and a devastating slider. That was it. Maybe an occasional changeup but hardly worth noting.

Johnson was a two-pitch pitcher for most of his career, and it worked.

Yu Darvish should have been paying attention. Darvish, when he was with the Rangers, also had a fastball in the upper 90s and a wicked swing-and-miss slider that was probably his best pitch.

But he also had a cut fastball, sinking fastball, split fastball, changeup and a variety of curveballs. One of his curveballs was a slow-arcing pitch clocked at around 65 mph. Another was a knuckle curve that he added in 2019 and is completely different than the regular curve.

At one point, he started throwing the “gyro,” a mystery pitch introduced by Daisuke Matsuzaka. That is not to be confused with the shuuto, another Japanese pitch known as the reverse slider. Or maybe a screwball.

At one point, I’m pretty sure Darvish fooled around with the knuckleball. I do know he could play catch left-handed, if not actually pitch that way.

(The Associated Press)

Why did he throw so many pitches? No idea. Never met the man, never talked to him one on one. If another journalist ever got a meaningful one-on-one with him, I missed that story.

Maybe Darvish experimented with all those pitches because he was bored. Maybe Darvish just needed something to keep himself entertained — or the flock of Japanese journalists assigned to cover his every move.

Whatever. I stand by my stance of what I said a long time ago and maintain it to this day.

If Darvish had stuck with just the fastball and the slider, he would have been a far more successful major-league pitcher in the long run. He would have fulfilled all those overwhelmingly lofty expectations that he brought with him when he arrived in Texas in the winter of 2011-12, when the Rangers thought they had pulled off the sale of the century.

I remember Rangers scout Don Welke telling me in spring training that first year that Darvish would win “one or two Cy Young Awards” while he was in Texas.

“Maybe even three,” Welke said confidentially.

It was a giddy time for the Rangers. They were coming off two straight World Series appearances and now had landed one of the biggest names ever to come along in free agency.

Unfortunately, Darvish did not win a Cy Young with the Rangers. Then again, neither has any other pitcher who wore the Texas uniform.

But it was quite a ride while he was here: the highs and lows, agony and ecstasy, triumphs and defeats. It also required endless monitoring of bullpen throwing sessions, live batting practices, injury updates and anything else related to the Shogun Shah.

That’s not a derogatory term. Just like Darvish had a combined Japanese-Iranian heritage, he also seemed to be a combination of majestic warrior/royalty in the way he seemed to carry himself on and off the field.

I used to whistle Dvorak’s New World Symphony whenever Darvish walked into the Rangers media room for a press conference. It just seemed appropriate from that first press conference back in January of 2012.

Yu comes to Texas

Darvish, obviously, was a dominant pitcher in Japan. During his final season for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2011, he was 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA. He struck out 276 batters in 232 innings, plus a 0.83 WHIP.

He was so good that he said, “When playing baseball [these days], it was difficult to maintain motivation.”

Darvish also admitted he didn’t like Japanese pitchers being viewed as inferior to their American counterparts.

“I would like all the people in the world to say Darvish is the No. 1 pitcher,” he said.

Darvish was eligible to be posted after the 2011 season by the Fighters. Under the rules of the day, major-league clubs had to submit a posting fee to the original team. If the highest bid was accepted, the major-league club then had 30 days to negotiate a contract with the player. If a deal wasn’t reached, the player returned to Japan.

Right away there was speculation Darvish could command over $100 million from the winning team. Quietly, in the Rangers’ front office, the club prepared to get involved.

Actually, they were already prepared. About a dozen club officials had made a pilgrimage to Japan over the previous couple of seasons, ostensibly, to “scout” Darvish. In reality, they were laying the groundwork for a pitcher they no doubt coveted.

“It wasn’t just sitting behind home plate with a radar gun,” general manager Jon Daniels said.

There were other options. They could have opted to re-sign C.J. Wilson, their best pitcher on two straight American League pennant-winning teams. There was also some sentiment to go after veteran left-hander Mark Buehrle, a more reasonable alternative for a rotation that already included Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and Alexi Ogando.

Club president Nolan Ryan had a preference for Buehrle rather than spending big bucks on Darvish. But the Rangers’ new owners, Ray Davis and Bob Simpson, were eager for a bigger splash.

The Rangers submitted the winning bid at $51.7 million in late December. Actually, it was $51,703,411, a number chosen by Simpson with the 11 a nod to Darvish’s jersey number. Some 30 days later, with the clock ticking to zero, the Rangers landed Darvish for six years and $56 million. Total outlay of $107.7 million. Or something close to that. The contract also allowed Darvish to opt out of the sixth year depending on how he did in Cy Young voting.

(The Associated Press)

It was the Rangers’ biggest investment since signing Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million contract 11 years earlier.

The Darvish Rules

The introductory press conference was right out of Hollywood, held on the night of Jan. 20, 2012. It was held not in the staid interview room in the bowels of the Ballpark but in the Hall of Fame room above. Maybe a couple of hundred reporters and a bunch of guys wearing suits: Rangers officials and Darvish’s representatives.

His new teammates were there: Josh Hamilton sat in the front row next to Davis. So was Rafael Palmeiro, the former Rangers superstar in exile whose Hall of Fame hopes had died with a positive test for steroids.

But, hey, royalty is royalty. It was a night to see and be seen. It was less of a press conference than a viewing. Darvish handled it just fine.

“I don’t ever remember feeling pressure, and I’m not changing anything,” Darvish said. “I’ve received a lot of attention, and I’m used to it. It just comes with it.”

Yeah, like the time when he was an underage teenager and caught smoking a cigarette in a pachinko arcade. That caused a national scandal in Japan but didn’t seem to faze Darvish.

One month later, Darvish showed up in spring training, and the rules were laid out. No one-on-ones, just staged media sessions at pre-determined times after throwing sessions or games in which he pitched.

Politely, we were informed to give Darvish his space. Impolitely, the rule was … stay the hell away unless asked.

Truth be told, I really didn’t give a shit. Darvish was signed for five years at least, wasn’t going to get traded and probably wasn’t going to say anything controversial. Just watch him pitch and write down what anybody/everybody had to say.

Actually, it made for easy days when Darvish pitched. Star-Telegram writer Jeff Wilson and I referred to it as “shooting a layup.”

The poor Japanese media, they had it rough. Dozens of them all over the complex, shooting video and pictures at every chance and angle, charting his throwing sessions, counting his pitches and marking down what pitch he threw.

Then asking about it.

“I noticed you threw more curveballs this time out …

“I noticed you worked from the stretch more this time out …

“Your velocity wasn’t quite as good today … ”

Darvish shared his feelings on the subject.

“I’m not here to play around,” he said after his first throwing session. “I’m here to play baseball.”

Of course, it wasn’t enough to talk to Darvish. The Japanese reporters wanted to talk to catcher Mike Napoli.

“You could tell he had good command,” Napoli said. “I was real impressed.”

So was Jurickson Profar.

“He looked good,” Profar said. “He’s got great command.”

Profar was just 19 and had never played in the big leagues before, but he had stood in against Darvish in that first throwing session. So, his opinion was priceless for the hungry Japanese media.

One thing needs to be clear. The Texas writers loved the Japanese media. We became close friends with many of them while they were here. They were professional, respectful, knowledgeable, did their homework and worked their asses off.

We tried to help them as much as possible knowing they had to cover a player who was aloof — to put it kindly — and had his own set of rules.

Not that Darvish couldn’t be humorous on rare occasions. Or at least make an attempt.

Jeff Wilson/Rangers Today

In 2014, the Yankees made a big splash in Japan when they paid out $175 million for right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. At the time, Tanaka was the next big thing out of Japan, and Darvish was asked about the big contract early in spring training.

Speaking, as always, through his interpreter, Darvish said, “Well, I don’t know much about the new posting system, but I think the Yankees gave him a little too much money.”

The problem was nobody realized Darvish was joking because he rarely joked around in his press conferences. Secondly, we all had Twitter accounts and tweeted it out immediately.

Darvish had hardly gone back to the clubhouse from the Rangers press tent before his innocuous joke had gone viral. Rangers vice president John Blake went ballistic, claiming this was why Darvish didn’t like talking to the media.

Darvish soon released a statement saying, “I am sorry if anyone took my comment seriously about Masahiro Tanaka at the press conference today. I assumed by the reaction in the room that everyone knew I was joking.”

We probably did.

The legend comes to life

The Rangers drew 47,085 for a Tuesday night game on April 24, 2012. That was an extraordinary crowd for a Tuesday night in April, but the Rangers were coming off a second trip to the World Series and the Yankees were in town.

Above all, Darvish was pitching for the Rangers. It was his fourth start, having gone 2-0 with a 3.57 ERA in his first three starts. He had pitched 17 2/3 innings, allowing 19 hits and 13 walks while striking out 14. In other words, nothing special.

Against the Yankees, he was special. Darvish went 8 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing seven hits and two walks while striking out 10.

“That’s what all the hype was about,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said.

The hype was real, but so was the talent. Darvish was off and running and, to a great extent, delivered on the hype during his first three years with the Rangers. Three All-Star appearances, fantastic strikeout totals, large crowds … it all started to fall into place for Darvish and the Rangers.

Sort of.

Darvish did pitch like a No. 1 starter in those early years, there was no doubt about that. During those three years, Darvish struck out 11.22 batters per nine innings, the best ratio in the majors. He made 83 starts and was 39-25 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.

He also had just two complete games, one in a rain-shortened five-inning outing. Despite that, he averaged 107.6 pitches per game, the third-highest ratio among major-league pitchers from 2012 to 2014.

Darvish’s pitch counts became a constant source of concern. The guy could be close to unhittable, but he could also waste a lot of pitches trying to manage that ridiculously vast repertoire.

In 2012, opponents averaged 7.3 hits per nine innings, third-lowest in the league. In 2013, the ratio was 6.2, the lowest in the league. But he was fourth in the league in walks in 2012 and third in 2013.

Darvish had the fastball, and Nolan Ryan said he had the best slider in the league. The Rangers wanted him to attack with those two pitches and put hitters away early. But Darvish seemed obsessed with tinkering with as many pitches as possible.

The Rangers tried not to be alarmists when it came to Darvish’s pitch counts, but it was certainly on their minds. Darvish made his first start of the 2013 season on April 2 against the Astros in Houston and retired the first 26 batters he faced.

No. 9 hitter Marwin Gonzalez was all that stood between Darvish and a perfect game. But Darvish was already up to 110 pitches, and manager Ron Washington made up his mind. Gonzalez was going to be Darvish’s last hitter. Even if Gonzalez walked, Darvish was coming out, no-hitter be damned.

Gonzalez instead singled, a ground ball through Darvish’s legs. Michael Kirkman came in to get the last out.

A 130-pitch outing on May 16 really had the sports call-in shows buzzing about the mounting pitch counts, but Darvish was on a roll. The 10-4 victory over the Tigers gave Darvish a record of 7-1 with a 2.97 ERA over his first nine starts.

(The Associated Press)

He made 23 starts the rest of the season and went 6-8 with a 2.78 ERA. Instead of pitch counts, the focus turned to run support. His run support dropped from 7.22 per nine innings through those first nine starts to 3.08 in the last 23. He also became the first Rangers pitcher to lose four 1-0 games in one season.

As a result, Darvish finished a distant second to Max Scherzer in the Cy Young voting, the first Rangers pitcher to finish that high since Ferguson Jenkins lost out to Jim “Catfish” Hunter in 1974. The two pitchers had similar numbers over an equal 32 starts: Darvish had the lower ERA (2.89 to 2.90) while Scherzer had the lower WHIP (0.97 to 1.07).

But Scherzer finished 21-3 while Darvish was 13-9. The won-loss difference meant everything. Scherzer received 28 of 30 first-place votes and took home the trophy.

The Rangers remain the only American League team without a Cy Young winner.

Tommy John and the end

Darvish kept it up in 2014, going 10-7 with a 3.06 ERA through 22 starts. But his elbow was bothering him, and he was diagnosed with mild inflammation. After allowing six runs in four innings in a loss to the Astros on Aug. 9, he was placed on the disabled list and did not pitch the rest of the year.

That seemed to be a wise move for a team going through a terrible season. At that point, the Rangers were in last place in the AL West and would stay that way for the rest of the way. Still, there was some innuendo that Darvish quit on the Rangers, something he hotly disputed when he met with the media for the first time the next spring.

“I never quit on the team,” Darvish said. “I love this team. That is not true. That’s bullshit.”

Didn’t matter. It ended the way so many Rangers pitching injuries did through the years. The good guy dies in the end. The Rangers expected Darvish to be at full strength for the 2015 season, and instead, he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on St. Patrick’s Day. He was sidelined for 14 months.

I can still hear Rangers manager Jeff Banister’s lament: “My first year as a big-league manager, and before my first game, I already lost my No. 1 starter to Tommy John.”

While Darvish was sidelined, the Rangers won the 2015 A. West title, although they lost to the Blue Jays in the division series. When Darvish returned the following season on May 28, the Rangers were back in contention just 1 ½ games out of first place.

Darvish gave them a lift, going 7-5 with a 3.41 ERA over 17 starts. His 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings reflected his continued ability to overpower hitters. Most memorable, though, was a 6-5 victory over the Reds on Aug. 24, not for his pitching but his hitting in an interleague game.

In just his 14th major-league at-bat, Darvish hit his first and only home run off Reds pitcher Tim Adleman.

“Just take the DH off and let me hit,” Darvish said.

On second thought …

“If I get another at-bat, I might strike out,” Darvish said. “I want to keep the home run image in my mind.”

Yeah, Darvish was joking around and having fun, but it wasn’t because of the home run. He was just different after he came back from Tommy John.

Darvish was relaxed and friendly. Personable. Smiling far more often than before. Enjoying himself, like he even wanted to stay in Texas for a long time.

Unfortunately, the season didn’t end on a happy note. The Rangers did win another division title but were swept by the Blue Jays in the division series. Darvish pitched Game 2 and allowed five runs in five innings in a 5-3 loss.

Not only did Darvish not win a Cy Young in Texas, but he also didn’t even get a win in his two postseason starts.

Darvish entered the 2017 season as a free agent, and that spring Davis, the majority owner, made a prediction about his pitcher.

In a rare sit-down with the DFW media, Davis said, “He is healthy, in a good frame of mind and very strong. I expect he is going to win a Cy Young Award.”

Davis and Co. didn’t back that up with a contract extension. The Rangers showed they were in no hurry to get something done, and Darvish wasn’t either.

“Liking Texas and signing a deal are two different things,” Darvish said. “It’s all business.”

(The Associated Press)

Indeed, it was. Two eras were about to come to an end. One was the fabulous success the Rangers enjoyed from 2010 to 2016. The other was Darvish’s time in Texas.

The Rangers were 26-28 at the end of May and were 12 games behind the Astros in the West. Talk of an extension dimmed, and trade rumors started to grow. With each passing day, it appeared more likely that Darvish’s departure would be not at the end of the season but at the July trade deadline.

The Dodgers and Yankees were the biggest suitors, and it went right down to the end. Just 15 minutes before the deadline passed on the afternoon of July 31, 2017, the Rangers traded Darvish for infielder Willie Calhoun, pitcher A.J. Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis.

Daniels gave the Yu Darvish eulogy in announcing the trade.

“Yu was outstanding when he was on the field for us,” Daniels said. “Pitched at a level very, very few pitchers do. He got hurt, and that’s the nature of the game — players get hurt. Pitchers get hurt. But he produced at an extremely high level when he was here.”

It was quite a ride with a player quite unlike any other who wore the Rangers uniform.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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2 Comments

  1. revo1964@hotmail.com June 8, 2024

    Another outstanding T.R. Rangers history lesson. He lived it , analyzed it, chronicled it. He is a Rangers treasure and if the Rangers ever open a media wing in their HOF, he should be the first inducted.

    Reply
  2. T Ball June 12, 2024

    Which part of the New World Symphony? The Largo?

    Reply

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