Three months into his great American adventure, Yu Darvish is showing signs of being everything the Texas Rangers wished for when they spent $111 million to sign him out of Japan. He's an athletic pitcher with a hard-core competitive streak and a popular teammate who disdains the trappings of stardom and just wants to be one of the fellas.
Darvish also has some serious cross-cultural outreach appeal as a gate attraction. The Rangers played before a moderate 18,171 fans during Darvish's last start at Progressive Field. But when pitching coach Mike Maddux looked around the stands, he couldn't help but notice all the Asian fans in attendance.
"I was like, 'Holy cow, I didn't realize Cleveland has such an Asian community,'" Maddux said. "Everybody wants to see what the hype is about. Everybody wants to see Sidd Finch."
Most nights, Darvish has the stage to himself. In his next appearance, he'll have to share it with the guy he replaced.
One of the most intriguing pitching matchups of the early season will take place Friday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, when Darvish takes on C.J. Wilson, who left Texas in December to sign a five-year, $77.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
Both pitchers have performed to expectations while posting eerily similar numbers (see chart). Although they might not come out and admit they're stoked about facing each other, human nature says a little extra adrenaline rush is inevitable.
Wilson spent 11 years in the Texas organization, and a part of him must want to make the Rangers regret letting him go. Darvish, in turn, knows the Angels are considered the Rangers' prime American League West competition, even though Mike Scioscia's club hasn't shown it to this point.
"I think Yu views this as more than just another start," said Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine. "He recognizes in the immediate term that this is our more prominent rival. It's not like C.J. is getting amped up and Yu has ice water in his veins. I think they've both probably looked at this on the map for quite some time."
After several seasons as a reliever in Texas, Wilson emerged as a top-flight starter two years ago. He went 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA and back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2010-2011. Although Wilson's departure from Texas wasn't exactly contentious, it produced some entertaining fallout.
The first salvo came in spring training after Texas catcher Mike Napoli reportedly said he's looking forward to hitting a home run against Wilson when the Rangers and Angels play this season. Wilson responded by posting Napoli's cell phone number on his Twitter account for more than 100,000 followers to see.
Two months later, Napoli is more perplexed than angry over the prank-gone-awry. As he points out, he already has a home run off Wilson. It came in September 2010, when Napoli was still playing for the Angels.
"It was kind of childish," Napoli said of the Twitter incident. "Being a professional athlete, I don't know anybody [else] that would do that. It's just C.J. being C.J., I guess."
Wilson shared some hurt feelings in April when he told radio host Dan Patrick that the Rangers might have strung him along during his free-agent search. He said the Rangers "kind of wasted my time" by giving the impression an offer was forthcoming when he was not high on their list of priorities.
The Texas' front office took note of the comments and did absolutely nothing to ratchet up the drama.
"We know C.J. very well and we have a lot of respect for him," Levine said. "There have been occasions where he's expressed himself verbally, and it's just a matter of him processing things and getting them off his chest. We didn't take any of that personally or to heart. I think when you engage in these types of negotiations, it never is at the pace the player would ideally like."
Wilson makes for great copy as a professional athlete who's immersed in Taoism and the straight edge lifestyle, race cars, movies and politics. At times, it seems like he's auditioning for a role in "The Bachelor." But even when his fellow Rangers were rolling their eyes over some of his postgame soliloquies, they respected him for his commitment and professionalism.
"C.J. had been here so long, we knew him," Rangers infielder Michael Young said. "We preferred to focus on the fact that the guy wanted to be good. C.J. has a lot of off-field interests. But when it came down to baseball time, he was a worker. He was ready and always prepared. That's all we really cared about."
Darvish, who came to Texas with his own traveling media contingent, made it clear he wanted to blend in with the crowd upon arrival at spring training. Rather than stand in front of the team and speak through his interpreter, Joe Furukawa, Darvish went from locker to locker and introduced himself to every Ranger individually. It was a nice way to break down barriers and disabuse teammates of the notion that he might have any "diva" in him.
The transition continues to go smoothly. Darvish once played with a Venezuelan catcher in Japan, so he speaks more Spanish than people realize. That skill has allowed him to strike up a bit of a bromance with Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. While Andrus pokes fun at Darvish's bleached hair and hurls good-natured insults from across the clubhouse, Darvish helps bridge the cultural gap by teaching Andrus snippets of Japanese.
"I know how to say, 'You're a beautiful girl,' and count from 1 to 5," Andrus said. He's still working on Nos. 6 through 10.
Between the lines, the Rangers have eased Darvish's transition by allowing him to be himself. Darvish stands a rangy 6-foot-5, so the Rangers worked on getting him to stand tall in spring training and throw downhill to use his height to maximum advantage. But when he began to have command issues in Arizona, Maddux and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins took a step back and let Yu be Yu. "We just buttoned up and observed," Maddux said.
Darvish reverted to his natural "drop and drive" style, which is more reminiscent of Tom Seaver than Nolan Ryan, and his control improved almost immediately. Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka and other Japanese pitchers also embrace the drop-and-drive approach more than the classically American downhill style of pitching.
The Rangers faced an additional challenge in winnowing down Darvish's diverse repertoire. He throws a sinking two-seam fastball, a rising four-seamer and a cutter, three brands of curveball (hard, medium and 60-mph Eeephus), a slider, changeup and split. That's nine different offerings, and his arsenal is further expanded when he throws the pitches to either side of the plate.
In an effort to make life easier for everyone, the Rangers study video and scouting reports before each start and focus on two, three or four pitches that will be most effective against a particular lineup. At pivotal junctures in games, Darvish always has the luxury of pulling a surprise out of his back pocket.
"He's really into knowing the opposition, so he's all ears in that regard," Maddux said. "He takes it out there and the catchers use some imagination with him. They know he's got a little something extra that the hitters haven't seen yet."
The Rangers never have to worry about Darvish putting in the work. "He lives in the weight room," Young said. If anything, they're taking pains to pace him. Darvish has averaged a healthy 110 pitches in his first six starts, but he limits himself to one bullpen session between outings. He typically checks out after 35 pitches or thereabouts.
Darvish's natural gifts extend beyond his ability to pitch. His Texas teammates recall a routine ground ball between first and second base in a game earlier this season. Darvish bounded off the mound and reached the first-base bag to cover with incredible quickness, fluidity and grace. Young, who was playing third base at the time, turned to the opposing team's third-base coach, and they just smiled and shook their heads in amazement.
"He's insanely athletic," Young said.
The Angels will get their first taste of Darvish on Friday, while the Rangers reacquaint themselves with a familiar face. The game will be a treat for fans, the media and the opposing starters. The other players claim it's just another game on the schedule. But they might think differently when they feel the energy radiating down from the stands.
"C.J. was a teammate and he did well for us, but I don't think anyone really thinks about him while we're here in our clubhouse," Napoli said. "We worry about our own teammates and love everybody in this clubhouse. He's the enemy now. That's the way you've got to look at it."