The Master

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I've come to grips with 2014 being a lost season, but I'll never not appreciate a good Yu Darvish start. So let's begin where he left off last Wednesday:

It's almost ironic that Darvish got his first career complete game (a shutout, no less) on a night where his stuff wasn't really all that great (to Yu's standard), which is no knock on him; he picked up his obligatory 10 strike outs, allowed six hits, three bases on balls, and ultimately held a team that was hot scoreless over 9 innings. Always an impressive feat. But his Game Score of 82 is only the third-best output of his season -- a tie for third, even -- behind his April 11th start against the Astros (88), and his near-no-hitter against the Red Sox (90), neither of which did he get all 27 outs by himself. Two starts ago, in a 2-0 shutout win over the Nationals, Yu went 8.0 innings, allowing no runs on 5 hits, striking out 12 while walking two. His score that start was, like Wednesday against the Marlins, also 82. 

If my math is adding up, Yu has produced a Game Score of at least 80 in four of his 12 starts in 2014; between 2012-2013, combined, Darvish had only three such starts (and they all came in 2013). 

The fact that he threw a complete game obviously doesn't mean he is any better now than he was before. Perhaps to some of the more embarrassing factions of the media and fan base -- those who thought Yu Darvish inherently lacked some intangible quality to finish baseball games -- maybe the CGSO meant something more than what it was to the rest of us:

Just another feather in the cap of one of baseball's very elite pitchers. 

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When the Rangers signed him, the idea was that Texas's young front office regime finally had its elusive True Number One starting pitcher. Yu Darvish was brought in not only to lead the pitching staff through the regular season, but the entire organization through October during what was supposed to be/is the franchise's Golden Age. While he hasn't disappointed, behind two second place finishes in spite of two 90+ win seasons, it can be argued that the team has marginally underachieved in Yu's two-plus years. Which is saying something, because the Rangers were a Wild Card in 2012 and lost a play-in Game 163 in 2013. But still. 

It's now Darvish's third year with the club, meaning after this season he will have played either 50% or 60% of his first big league contract, depending on if he gets the necessary Cy Young Award votes to exercise his player option in 2017. So, the clock is ticking, and a bit faster than most Yu Darvish admirers within Texas's fan base would probably prefer. 

I can't say I would blame them. As great as Darvish has been, it's difficult to quantify how much room he still has left to grow. His ceiling is yet to be determined. You can check his player page for yourself, noticing improvement in nearly every aspect of his game each in his three big league seasons. Below are his peripherals (walk, strikeout and home run rates) since his rookie year:

2012 -- 27.1% K rate, 10.9% BB rate, 9.1% HR/FB%; 3.90 ERA, 3.52 xFIP, +4.9 fWAR

2013 -- 32.9% K rate, 9.5% BB rate, 14.4% HR/FB%; 2.83 ERA, 2.84 xFIP, +5.0 fWAR

2014 -- 29.2% K rate, 7.8% BB rate, 5.4% HR/FB%, 2.11 ERA, 3.15 xFIP, +2.9 fWAR

To make sense of the data, we only really have to look at his walks and home runs... because his strikeout numbers have been second-to-none from day one. Since 2012, Darvish leads the majors with 599 strikeouts, which is 22 more than Max Scherzer (who is second on the list), 48 more than Felix Hernandez (who is third), 67 more than Clayton Kershaw and 76 more than Justin Verlander, who check in at 4th at 5th, respectively. 

The best part? Yu Darvish has thrown fewer innings than each of those pitchers. In this current pitcher-dominant era, Yu is dining with a select handful of MLB's elite #1's.

But back to the walks and HRs. In his rookie season, Darvish -- albeit brilliant -- left a lot to be desired in the free passes department. Had it not been for all the walks, his ERA likely wouldn't have been even remotely close to 4.00 (3.90).

And now that I'm looking at it, how the hell did Yu Darvish ever have an earned run average that high? Seriously. 

Nonetheless, it was a productive year; the scary part was how he'd yet to arrive at his true talent level, something he only showed glimpses of as a rookie. In 2013, that was more realized: In 209.2 innings, Yu punched out big league-best 277 batters (Scherzer finished 2nd with 240), and lowered his walk rate en route to a 2.83 ERA and a 2nd place Cy Young Award finish. Had his historically poor run support been even a little better than it was -- a half of a run? -- the narrative of Yu Darvish's season would have been dramatically different compared to how it turned out. That being the local, whiny old beat writers bemoaning him for occasionally failing to hold leads, lacking "the will to win," or for not being enough of a work horse to throw complete games. He only went 13-9.

I don't know what goes through Darvish's head, and I don't really want to... but if he leads the Texas Rangers to their first ever World Series title before his contract runs up in 2017 (or 2016), I wouldn't hold it against him at all if he chose to leave in free agency to the highest bidder, because for a legit ace in the major leagues -- pitching in a foreign country against foreign competition for the first time in his career -- some of the things written and spoken about Darvish by the media and fans have been borderline disgusting, given Yu's disposition. (Particularly in 2012 and '13.) Super-stars don't deserve anything but appreciation, especially when they have performed as such from the outset. 

But this isn't about any of them. It's about Yu. When it comes to his tenure with the Rangers, strangely the club has fallen on harder times each successive season, from the September collapse of 2012 to the injury-plagued, suspension-filled 2013 that led to a second consecutive 2nd place finish, and 2014 hasn't been any better. To the contrary, actually. Right now the Rangers have enough players on the disabled list to field a semi-competitive big league club, which is the more or less the same thing they have with the guys available on the current 25-man roster. 

It remains, that through the departures of many of the guys who shaped the Rangers as we've known them -- from faces like Nolan Ryan and Michael Young, to Hamilton, Kins, Cruz, Wilson, Napoli, and many more -- Yu Darvish has been the consistent bright spot during the most tumultuous three years in the history of franchise, which is kinda beautiful and kinda bittersweet at the same time.

I'm still stranded with the thought that, even though he's been The Man up to this point, none of us have truly witnessed the best Yu Darvish has to offer, for we've yet to see him on baseball's biggest stage: The Fall Classic. 

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Who knows? Maybe we'll never be lucky enough to see it. It's no picnic to get into the playoffs in the first place, and it's a crap-shoot once your team is there. It can't be understated, particularly with the dormant history of the club, just how fortunate Rangers fans were to have seen back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. With long-shot odds (at best) of making the playoffs this year, the window of winning with Yu Darvish under contract is growing thinner.

Since it's already on everyone's mind, and since I've already spent about 1500 words writing about him, why not dedicate a few more to some honest speculation, shall we?

If I had to weigh in, I'd say there's a better than 70 percent chance Darvish wins a Cy Young Award between now and 2016 -- or at least racks up enough 2nd and 3rd place finishes to decline his $10 million player option in 2017 -- meaning I believe it's likely he would, theoretically, be a free agent in 2017. 

As a big business, and a smart one, the Rangers haven't had a ton of incentive to engage in a long-term extension with him as of yet. And mainly for two reasons:

(1) Yu Darvish is a pitcher.

(2) Pitchers break.

With a three-year cushion, Texas has had the luxury to wait and see. The Tigers, for example, committed to Justin Verlander through 2019 for over $200 million (if his option kicks in) when he still had two years left on his old deal. Essentially since the extension was finalized, Verlander hasn't been the same pitcher; his troubling loss in velocity has led to a drop in strikeouts, an increase in walks, and declining rates across the board

The Mariners, meanwhile, did the same with Felix Hernandez last year, extending him for seven years and $175 million ($25 million AAV) well before they needed to. His story is separate from Verlander's, however, because Felix has by far been the best pitcher in MLB, according to FanGraphs.

Every pitcher is different, of course, which is why comparing Darvish to Verlander or Hernandez probably isn't the most wise avenue to travel. 

With that said, if the Rangers believe in Yu for the duration -- let's say, a 7-year extension through 2020 (Darvish's age-34 season) -- the time to begin negotiations would ideally begin after this season. Barring injury, he's simply too good to avoid first-place votes on Cy Young Award ballots, so you'd prefer to get him signed long-term before free agency draws a year closer. 

At the rate TORPs go for on the open market, Darvish should expect a pay day in the proximity of $25 million per year, a price I would assume the Rangers are more than prepared for. It's unquestionably worth it for one of the three-best pitchers on the planet. 

It's only June of 2014 right now, so any contract-extension talk is premature. But, along with the potential acquisition of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, or James Shields -- all free agents after '14 -- Darvish's next contract is sure to be one of the hottest of the hot button offseason issues. 

Either way, he's our guy right now. He's the guy. I'll admit I expected greatness when he came over from Japan -- which probably wasn't fair to Yu Darvish -- but I can also say at no point has he not lived up to that expectation. Yet, of the many things he's already accomplished in the big leagues, the best is still to come.

I just hope we'll get to see it all while he's wearing a Texas Rangers uniform.