Yu Darvish was born on August 16, 1986 in Habikino, a city of just over 100,000 people in the prefecture of Osaka, Japan that’s famous for its grape production. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Farsad and Ikuyo, were well educated and athletic. Farsad, an Iranian, went to the United States for high school shortly before the Shah was deposed. He competed in sports ranging from soccer to motocross.
Farsad stayed in the U.S. and continued his studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was a member of the Tritons’ soccer team. All-Star slugger Steve "Bye Bye" Balboni and San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean are both graduates at Eckerd. Farsad met Yu’s mother while both were students at Eckerd.
The couple moved to Japan in the early 1980s and raised their son in Habiniko. Yu showed an early talent for baseball, the national sport. As a grade-schooler, he led Habikino’s boys team to high finishes in national and international tournaments. In Japan, high schools recruit athletes like Yu, and there plenty vying for his services. In the end, he chose Tohuku High School, which was roughly five hours away by high-speed rail.
By the age of 15, Yu had claimed his spot at the top of manager Masahiro Wako’s starting rotation—no small accomplishment at a school known for its baseball program. At 16, he pitched his team to the finals of the National High School Baseball Championship. A year later, Yu tossed a no-hitter in the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament. It was his fourth and final national tourney. In those competitions, he posted a 7–3 record and 1.47 ERA, averaging just under a strikeout an inning.
Yu was roundly hailed as Japan’s finest schoolboy pitcher. He was close to his final height of 6-5—enormous by Japanese standards—and was approaching 200 pounds. To make things doubly tough on hitters, he employed a three-quarters drop-and-drive motion that made his 90 mph heater hop all over the strike zone. He had already mastered the infamous "shuto,” a variation on the two-seam fastball that is popular in Japan. Yu’s out-pitch as a teenager was a screwball. As it approached the plate, young hitters could not distinguish it from his two-seamer until they had committed to swing.
Because Yu held dual citizenship, there was a chance he might be eligible for the MLB draft. Several teams, including the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New York Mets, scouted him, but Yu put an end to all speculation by announcing that he intended to play pro ball in Japan.
The Japanese baseball draft works differently than the MLB draft in that college and industrial-league players can actually be signed prior to being selected. However, when a team inks more than one of these more polished prospects, they forfeit their first-round pick. Because several teams considering Yu decided to go this route, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were able to land him.
The Fighters, whose home base is Sapporo, were growing in popularity. They had just added veteran star Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who returned to Japan after playing for the Mets and Giants from 2001 to 2003. Yu joined the Fighters for the 2005 season. Among his teammates that summer were veterans U.S. players Sherman Obando and Fernando Seguignol.
Yu made his debut on June 15, 2005. He pitched into the ninth inning against the Toyo Carp and earned a victory. He made a total of 14 starts for the Fighters as a rookie, splitting 10 decisions with a respectable 3.53 ERA in 94 and 1/3 innings of work.
ON THE RISE
With his rookie season behind him, Yu took a major step toward stardom in 2006. After starting the year 2–5, he reeled off 10 wins in a row and finished 12–5 with a 2.89 ERA. One major change Yu made was relying more on his fastball. He experienced arm soreness in the preseason, which he attributed to his trusty screwball. He removed that pitch from his repertoire during his sophomore campaign.
The Fighters rolled to their first Pacific League pennant in 25 years, earning a berth in the Japan Series against the Chunichi Dragons. Yu took the mound for the opener, but the Dragons won 4–2 behind Kenshin Kawakami. Rookie Tomoya Yagi evened the series in Game 2 with a 5–2 win. The Fighters dominated the Dragons in the next two contests, setting up a Game 6 rematch between Yu and Kawakami. The contest was tied 1–1 through five innings, but the Fighters tacked on two runs in the sixth and another in the eighth to win 4–2. Michael Nakamura slammed the door for his third save of the series. Atsunori Inabu, who homered twice in the series, was named MVP.
Yu was simply sensational in 2007. By the time he turned 21 that summer, he was being called the best pitcher in Japan. He had total command of his expanding arsenal and was mowing down hitters at an historic rate. Yu went 15–5 with a 1.82 ERA and fanned 210 hitters in 207 innings. That performance earned him the Samurai Award—the equivalent of the Cy Young—which is named after Eiji Sawamura, a fireballing pitcher who was killed during World War II.
Thanks to two victories by Yu in the Pacific playoffs, the Fighters returned to defend the Japan Series title against the Dragons again. Game 1 was a rematch between Yu and Kawakami. The Fighters gave their ace three runs in the first inning, and he made them stand up with a complete-game 3–1 victory. Yu retired 13 batters on strikes—only the second time in Japan Series history that had been done.
Unfortunately, the Fighters dropped the next three games, so Yu took the mound for Game 5 charged with staving off elimination. He fanned 11 hitters and allowed just one run, but the Dragons’ hurlers were even better. Starter Daisuke Yamai and closer Hitoki Iwase combined to pitch a perfect game.
In 2008, Yu proved his banner year was no fluke. He opened the season with 1–0 shutout and went on to register 15 more victories against only four defeats. He topped 200 strikeouts for the second year in a row and also scored another sub-2.00 ERA. His best performance came against Hisashi Iwakuma, who was having an equally good season. Iwakuma twirled a complete game, yielding three hits and one run. Yu did him one better, throwing a shutout on just 95 pitches. At season’s end, he won his second MVP award.
Yu might have reached 20 victories had he not played for the Olympic team. Manager Senichi Hoshino tabbed him as the squad’s #1 starter but had a change of heart when Yu gave up four runs in four innings against Cuba in his first start. He pitched in non-crucial situations the rest of the way, notching 10 strikeouts in seven innings of work. After the Olympics, Yu reeled off five straight victories to lead the Fighters into the playoffs. He pitched two marvelous games against the Orix Buffaloes and Seibu Lions, but the Fighters failed to advance to the Japan Series.
The Fighters relied on Yu more than ever in 2009, often keeping him in games past 120 pitches. He replicated his 15–5 record of two seasons earlier and lowered his ERA to 1.73. Toward the end of the campaign, Yu had two stints on the DL. That was not enough to prevent him from winning his third MVP award.
Yu was activated in time for the 2009 postseason, and the Fighters reached the Japan Series. Yu started Game 2 and beat the Yomiuri Giants, but he clearly wasn’t 100 percent. He had shortened his stride to compensate for his lower-body injuries, which put added strain on other parts of his body. Yu did not pitch again in the series, which the Fighters lost in six games. Afterward, it was revealed that he was also dealing with a stress fracture in the forefinger of his pitching hand.
A few months later, Yu was on the mound again in the 2010 World Baseball Classic. He beat China in his first start but lost to South Korea in his second. His next appearance came in relief, as he closed out a 9–4 win over Team USA in the semifinals with a scoreless ninth inning. In the gold medal game—a rematch with South Korea—Yu was called upon to protect a 3–2 lead in the bottom of the ninth. He failed to finish off the win, yielding a single run that sent the game into extra innings. However, his teammates scored twice in the top of the 10th, and this time Yu slammed the door for his second victory of the series. His two strikeouts in the 10th gave him 20 in 13 innings during the competition.
The 2010 season was the first of Yu’s career in which the Fighters were not competitive. They began the season with 14 losses in their first 20 games and never recovered. Yu pitched well all year, but did not get the hitting and fielding support he’d grown accustomed to. The result was a 12-win campaign despite a 1.78 ERA. As the team stumbled toward a fourth-place finish, baseball fans on both sides of the Pacific began wondering if Yu might want to move his act to the United States. He played down the possibility, saying that he would review all of his options after the season.
The Fighters made sure that Yu would stay with them for at least one more year when they made him the highest-paid player in Japanese baseball. His salary was reported to be 500 million yen (about $6 million a year). Yu donated about 10 percent of his salary to the Japanese Red Cross after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Yu was among many celebrities who thought the baseball season should be delayed or cancelled because of the national tragedy. The season opening was pushed back several weeks, but the teams played their full 144-game schedules.
Yu rebounded from an opening-day thrashing at the hands of the Seibu Lions to have his best season as a pro. He won 18 games and dropped his ERA to 1.44, while his strikeout total soared to a league-leading 276. Yu’s control was off the charts, as he issued a mere 36 bases on balls. In the opening game of the best-of-three playoffs against Seibu, Yu left after eight innings with a 1–0 lead. The bullpen could not hold the Lions, and then the Fighters also fell in Game 2, abruptly ending Yu’s final year in Japan. In seven Pacific League seasons, he went 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA.
MAKING HIS MARK
That December, Yu was posted, meaning that any MLB team could bid for the right to negotiate for his services. The Rangers made the highest sealed bid at just over $50 million. A few weeks later they announced that Yu wouldjon the team in 2012, with a six-year deal worth roughly $10 million per season.
After coming within an eyelash of winning the World Series in 2011, the Rangers began 2012 hoping that Yu would be able to claim a spot at or near the top of the starting rotation. His first big-league start, against the Seattle Mariners, fell far short of expectations. Yu pitched into the sixth inning and was charged with five runs, but he got the win thanks to eight runs of support by his teammates. He received a standing ovation as he left the mound. Texas tacked on three more runs to win 11–5.
Yu performed better in his next outing, a win for the Rangers but a no-decision for him. His breakthrough game came against the New York Yankees in his third start. Yu left the game with one out in the ninth having given up only seven hits and no runs, with 10 strikeouts. Joe Nathan came in to get the save in an impressive 2–0 victory. In Yu’s final April start, he beat the Toronto Blue Jays to run his record to 4–0. He was recognized as the AL’s Rookie of the Month.
Yu has already shown the kind of stuff that translates to big success in the majors. But he’s now facing hitters with far better pedigrees than most of the batters he faced in Japan. Will Yu be able to adjust? Don’t bet against him. The Rangers and their fans certinaly aren’t.
YU THE PITCHER
Yu throws his fastball in the mid-90s with so-so action and owns a good curve that crosses the plate in the low 80s. His slider ranks among the better ones in baseball.
As he enters his prime pitching years, Yu is as highly evolved as anyone his age. He has a smooth, controlled delivery and an understanding of his own mechanics. He releases his fastball, changeup and breaking pitches from the same point with barely distinguishable differences in his delivery. In order to keep his body in synch, Yu sometimes pitches from the stretch when no men are on base.
Although nothing in his arsenal is overwhelming by major-league standards, Yu’s pinpoint accuracy keeps him ahead in the count and makes even the most patient hitters worry that every pitch will nip a piece of the plate. That makes for some less-than-committed swings. The result is a lot of weak grounders and lazy fly balls.
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