Image credit: Yu Darvish (Photo By Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO—When Yu Darvish first came over from Japan to the United States, the hype seemed almost too good to be true.
He had an impossibly deep assortment of pitches. His control was pinpoint. He could touch the upper 90s with his fastball and buckle hitters at the knees with a breaking ball nearly 30 mph slower. He was big, he was durable and, at 25, his prime was still ahead of him.
There had been other successful Japanese pitchers before him, from Hideo Nomo to Daisuke Matsuzaka, but Darvish projected to be better than them all. The Rangers paid a record $51.7 million posting fee just for the rights to negotiate with him, then signed him to a six-year, $60 million contract. The $111.7 million total was, at the time, a record outlay to sign a foreign professional.
It’s been nine years since then. Not everything has gone smoothly, from a Tommy John surgery that cost Darvish the entire 2015 season to a pair of disastrous starts during the 2017 World Series.
But on the whole, Darvish has lived up the hype, and then some.
Darvish became the first pitcher in major league history to reach 1,500 career strikeouts in fewer than 200 games on Monday night, reaching the milestone in his 197th career game. The previous fastest to 1,500 strikeouts was Randy Johnson, who did it in 206 games.
Darvish accomplished the feat by pitching six innings of one-run ball with 11 strikeouts to lead the Padres over the Dodgers, 6-2, in the latest installment of their blossoming National League West rivalry. He struck out seven straight batters at one point and held baseball’s highest-scoring offense to just two hits.
“I knew I was close (to 1,500 strikeouts),” Darvish said through an interpreter. “I’m actually really proud of being the first one to reach it in the fewest innings.”
That wasn’t Darvish’s only feat. He now has the most career strikeouts per nine innings of any starting pitcher in MLB history. He upped his career total to 11.09 K/9 with the effort, moving ahead of Chris Sale’s 11.08 K/9.
“It’s unbelievably impressive,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “For him to do everything with those strikeouts over the years, he’s got a ton of weapons. The way he spins the ball, the way he manipulates the ball, being able to get swing and miss, he’s tremendous at it.”
Only two years ago, it seemed unlikely Darvish would stand among the game’s all-time greatest strikeout artists. After a standout start to his career in Texas, including four all-star appearances and two top-10 Cy Young Award finishes in his first five seasons, his career hit a lull.
Darvish had a 4.01 ERA when the Rangers traded him to the Dodgers at the 2017 trade deadline and he imploded during the World Series. He still received a six-year, $126 million contract from the Cubs before the 2018 season but made only eight starts before missing the rest of the year with an elbow injury. When he returned in 2019, he allowed the most home runs of any pitcher in the National League.
Just when it looked like Darvish’s career was trending toward its end, though, he’s engineered a turnaround as stark as any in MLB. Since the 2019 all-star break, Darvish has a 2.43 ERA in 38 starts. During that stretch, he has 319 strikeouts in 247.2 innings.
Tingler, who was a member of the Rangers front office and coaching staff when Darvish was in Texas, has seen a noticeable change in Darvish from the start of his career.
“He’s not as affected by things around him anymore,” Tingler said. “He’s got a pretty steady, slow heartbeat now. He knows the league. He knows hitters. He’s developed some other pitches. He’s always had a big arsenal of pitches, but over time the way he works, the way he practices, the way he studies the game, he’s been able to master and fine tune some of those pitches over time.”
Darvish, in his own estimation, acknowledged he has grown more comfortable with the game and his place in it as well.
“Until now I never kind of thought of myself as an ace or the top guy in the rotation,” Darvish said. “But, you know, I’ve put some years in. I’m turning 35 this year. I feel like I’m more considerate to teammates, and more so than anything I feel like I’ve been able to grow a little bit as a human being.”
With that added growth and comfort, Darvish has cemented his place in MLB history with his strikeout milestone. His career ERA stands at 3.39, he has three top-10 Cy Young Award finishes to his name and he is an unquestioned ace at the top of a potential playoff rotation.
As he approaches a decade in MLB, he’s firmly made good on his promise coming out of Japan.
“I’ve had my ups and I had my downs, but the reason why I’m sitting here being able to talk about reaching 1,500 strikeouts is definitely because of all the support that I have been given,” Darvish said. “Since I’ve since I moved here or since I started my career here, just from the bottom of my heart, I’m really thankful and grateful for all the support that I have been given throughout the years here.”