Right Field

Yu Gotta Believe

Spring training is way overrated.

Don’t get me wrong: I am as excited as anybody else knowing that Opening Day is barely a hop, skip, and jump away. I know that fans who escape the late winter blues head to Florida and Arizona to watch their favorite players exercise and take part in exhibition games usually return grinning from ear-to-ear.

My decided lack of enthusiasm on Grapefruit and Cactus League activities focuses on the comparative paucity of good storylines during these six weeks. Assuming you don’t follow the Arizona Fall League or winter ball south of the border, November, December, and January may at first blush seem more depressing than a Dick Cavett monologue. In contrast, others like myself manage to get wrapped up in headlines featuring hirings and firings, retirement announcements, awards results, Hall of Fame voting, trades, and free-agent acquisitions.

Unfortunately, read the sports section of the local newspaper or click on a sports-network website in February and March, and you will find little substance. Way too often there will be variations of the beat writer’s cliché of clichés: “So-and-so reported to spring training in the best shape of his life.” (Good news: I am increasingly confident that the blogosphere’s constant mocking of the “best shape of his life” phrase, led by the Hardball Talk crew, will gradually lead to its demise.) Less amusing but similarly useless are reports of batting-practice sessions, new handshakes, and the first strained lat muscle.

Yu Darvish’s debut on the mound in a Rangers uniform yesterday was a noteworthy exception to my overall attitude. Here is a pitcher who didn’t just win in Japan; with an incredible 1.72 ERA over 126 starts, he dominated his opponents. Consequently, Texas let C. J. Wilson sign with the rival Angels and invested heavily in Darvish. In his two frames against the Padres, Darvish held his opponents scoreless and struck out three. He did not walk a batter, hardly surprising considering that 26 of his 36 pitches were strikes.

ESPN’s Keith Law walked away from his outing impressed. (Subscription required.)

Darvish sat 90-94 mph with his fastball over his two innings, 92-94 in the first and 90-93 in the second, attacking hitters all around the zone but really missing his location only once. He threw seven different pitches (by my count), with his hard slider at 82-83 a plus-plus offering with severe tilt, throwing it for strikes when he needed to but throwing it down and away from right-handers to generate chase swings. . . .

Seven pitches is a lot for a starter in MLB — I understand it’s more common in Japan — but with the fastball, slider, cutter and splitter, he’d have one of the 10 best arsenals in the league, and should have the control and aggressiveness to get the most out of it.

SB Nation’s Jeff Sullivan got the same vibe.

The stadium PITCHfx system had Darvish topping out around 94-95 miles per hour. He also threw some wicked breaking balls, obviously. Everybody already knew what Darvish threw — he was covered extensively in Japan, and I’ve seen more Darvish scouting reports this offseason than I’ve seen squirrels in my life — but for some reason it’s still reassuring to see that stuff in the States. Or terrifying, if you’re a fan of any team that isn’t the Rangers.

Unlike the last hyped import from Japan, Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka, Darvish has a track record of pinpoint control to go with an impressive 9.5 K/9 ratio.

He promises to be a joy to watch during the regular season . . . regardless of whether he is in the best shape of his life.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.


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