"Who is Yu?"
That question is not just scratching tin on English-speaking ears but also largely unnecessary for a man whose name has been bandied about for years, even in the United States. Yu, as in Darvish, is the dominant ace of the Nippon-Ham Fighters and likely the world's best pitcher who doesn't wear a major-league uniform.
Still just 25 years old, Darvish has been a national sensation in Japan since he was a teenager and has been tracked by American teams and media for years. He set a Japanese baseball record with five straight seasons with an ERA of less than 2.00, and he's the Justin Verlander of the Pacific League, having won not just the Eiji Sawamura Award -- the Japanese Cy Young -- but also the league's MVP trophy. Twice.
Darvish's first pro manager described his celebrity as a mix of "Fonzie and Elvis Presley," and his first pitching coach said Darvish can command and move his pitches so well that it can be "like Wiffle ball."
"Yu, at the age of 18, from a talent standpoint stuck out as much as anybody I've ever seen," said Mike Brown, Darvish's pitching coach for his first two seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. That's high praise from someone who previously worked in the Indians' and Yankees' farm systems when Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright were developing.
All of which means the most important question surrounding Darvish at the moment is this: When will he come to the major leagues? He could be made available to big league teams through the posting system -- in which clubs bid for the right to negotiate a contract with him -- as soon as today, tomorrow and any day this offseason, or perhaps not until next year. (Darvish won't be a free agent until after the 2014 season.)
Earlier this month Darvish's father, Farsa, told a reporter in Japan that there would be a family meeting to discuss his son's decision when the Nippon Series ended -- it concluded on Nov. 20 -- and at the time ruminated, "At this point it's about 50-50."
Several recent reports suggested that Darvish's pending divorce could delay his entry into the U.S. While no decision has been made, it is thought Darvish is more likely than not to post this offseason.
That a move to the U.S. has been Darvish's endgame has not been a secret for those closest to him.
"I knew for a fact that that was in the plans at some point in time because his dad told me that's what the ultimate goal was," said Trey Hillman, the Dodgers bench coach who previously managed the Fighters during Darvish's first four seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. "[Yu and I] did talk about it just briefly a couple of times, and I sensed -- although he never came out and said, 'Trey, I've got to end up pitching in the United States' -- that he wanted to."
In 2011 Darvish had a career-best 1.44 ERA while going 18-6 with 10 complete games, six shutouts and 276 strikeouts in 232 innings. Darvish's career ERA (1.99) is better than the best single-season ERA (2.13) posted by Daisuke Matsuzaka, like Darvish a huge star in NPB before coming to the majors in 2007.
"When the competition wasn't really challenging -- either because his stuff was that good or he was at the bottom part of the order -- he got a little bit bored," Hillman said of Darvish. "He loves competition."
In the wake of Matsuzaka's early success with the Red Sox, the question of "who's next" led many to focus on Darvish. There were extensive stories written about him for national domestic websites as far back as 2008. He received further exposure in helping Japan win the World Baseball Classic in 2009. His career statistics and even the full video of his one playoff start in 2011 can be found online.
"We in America collectively know more about Darvish than any other Japanese player that's preceded him," said Patrick Newman, the creator and writer of NPB Tracker, the leading English-language blog on Japanese baseball.
Darvish's Iranian father and Japanese mother met at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., but Darvish has lived his entire life in Japan. (According to Hillman, who noted that he hasn't spoken to the pitcher in nearly four years, Darvish understands English but is shy about speaking it.)
Darvish now packs some 220 pounds on his formerly lean 6'5" frame. His fastball sits in the range of 92-to-94 miles per hour while he throws his slider, his most devastating pitch, at different speeds and different arm angles.
Overall, Darvish throws so many breaking balls that he, almost literally, wrote the book on the matter. He was credited as the editorial supervisor on a "mook" -- a book/magazine hybrid -- entitled Yu Darvish's Breaking Pitch Bible.
"Some people would say that he tries to do too much, but he can do a lot more than most," said Brown, now a pro scout for the Diamondbacks.
"When I first saw him in the bullpen, you sit there, watch him throw and you kind of laugh because it's just amazing the things he can do with a baseball. He can throw the ball hard. But when he starts moving the ball around and creating different actions and shapes with the ball, it's very unique what he can do with the baseball."
In Japan Darvish's personal life has been tabloid fodder. He married an actress and garnered additional notoriety when he was photographed smoking in a gaming parlor while underage and for posing nearly nude in a magazine.
Fame came early: He threw a no-hitter at 17 in the famed Koshien national high school baseball tournament in 2004, debuted in NPB at 18 in 2005, won the clinching game of the Japan Series at 20 in 2006 -- his franchise's first title in 44 years -- and had his first great season (15-5, 1.82 ERA, 210 Ks) at 21 in 2007.
"Behind closed doors, on the field, or in a meeting with me or hanging out with his teammates, he was just a kid," Hillman said. "He didn't act like he was cooler than anybody else. He wanted to fit in. He treated his teammates well. He was coachable. He was courteous to fans."
The question of how Darvish will perform in the United States is one that has vexed major league scouts, particularly given the spotty track record for Japanese pitchers in the U.S. The pattern for most has been early success followed by a precipitous decline that's so regular it's been called the Third-Year Wall.
Darvish seems different. ESPN's Keith Law rated him the top available starting pitcher (if, of course, he becomes available), saying, "If there's an ace in this market, Darvish is it."
Hillman recalled "quite a bit of scout traffic" and the number of evaluators who have watched Darvish pitch is indicative of how great the expectations are for him.
"It's not just that a club spends $10,000 on a plane ticket, a hotel and an interpreter," Newman said. "Who else is that scout not watching? What is the opportunity cost of that?"
There are fundamental differences between pitching in Japan as opposed to the United States -- length of rest between starts, the size and feel of the ball, the substance of the mound and the classic approach to hitters -- but Hillman said he thinks the ball is the biggest difference.
The ball used in Japan is slightly smaller with more pronounced seams than its American counterpart, facilitating breaking pitches that are sharper and more easily controlled. The American ball often feels more slippery to Japanese pitchers.
Hillman emphasizes that this is rumor rather than fact, but he passed this tidbit along anyway: "I have heard that he's been working out with the American ball for quite some time."
In Japan starters typically pitch only once per week rather than every five days, the mound is made of a softer substance and fewer Japanese hurlers pitch off the fastball.
Rangers director of Pacific Rim operations Jim Colborn has been a pitching coach in both countries, serving in that role for the Orix Blue Wave in the early '90s and for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he worked with Kaz Ishii, and Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2000s. Colborn said those adjustments are far from insurmountable if a pitcher is properly committed to making the changes.
"The biggest adjustment is mentality," he said. "The physical training part is pretty seamless."
Darvish's natural talent and physical ability are obvious.
"I liked the length of his levers -- he had long arms," Hillman said. "I liked him mechanically. It was a clean delivery. He understands balance over the rubber well. Clean on the back side, clean release, clean finish. Along with the frame, I thought he was going to hold up."
He has done exactly that in his first seven seasons in Japan, and those who have watched him have little doubt he will be a quality pitcher at the major league level.
"I think he'll be extremely successful," Hillman said.
The only question now is when.