... not related to A(lways Something)-Rod?
Well, here goes. The World Baseball Classic began Wednesday morning in Tokyo, as Japan took on China. NPB's (Nippon Professional Baseball) iconic pitcher, Yu Darvish, took the mound and dominated the (admittedly weak) Chinese lineup.
Regardless, it my first chance to watch more than just highlights of Darvish. He pitched only four innings (because of WBC pitch limits), walked one, struck out three, and didn't allow any runs or hits.
Without radar gun readings, it was difficult to determine his consistent velocity. His fastball looked straight but very fast, totally overpowering the Chinese hitters. He had very good command of it, getting the three K's on perfectly located fastballs to the lower outside corner (via youtube, his velocity is about 90-94 MPH). Darvish also commanded his slider well, often using it to get ahead. He didn't seem to throw any other pitches, but according to the broadcasters, he has a forkball, curve and changeup in the repertoire.
The ESPN team also mentioned how Asian pitchers dislike MLB baseballs, because they're slicker and have lower seams, making it tougher to throw breaking pitches (Kei Igawa has complained about this too). They said that MLB is a fastball league while NPB is a breaking ball league. Perhaps NPB decided on higher seams purposely to make it easier on pitchers (does it decrease injuries also due to less stress on breaking pitches?). Why doesn't MLB use the same ball that would give an advantage to pitchers? Simple: MLB owners love offense. As Al Leiter is fond of saying, not one change since 1968 has helped pitchers (e.g. the DH, lower mounds, smaller ballparks, smaller strikezone, body armor, juiced ball?, etc.).
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make with all this fastball/breaking-ball stuff is that it seems like a good fastball is essential in making a smooth transition from NPB to MLB. Hideo Nomo and Kaz Sasaki had them, as do Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Hideki Okajima does not, but is blessed with great command. Kei Igawa is the worst of both worlds: poor command and an average (velocity-wise) fastball. (Here's a conspiracy theory: the Yankees are keeping Igawa around solely to make Darvish's transition to MLB smoother. How else does one explain not trading him when they had chances?)
Comparing Darvish to Dice-K, Darvish has in fact been better at the same ages.
Looking at both pitchers through the age of 21, Darvish has clearly been superior. That should give you an idea of how great he should be when he garners more experience and enters his prime in a few years.
If Darvish has a good WBC (as Dice-K did in '06), it could force the Nippon Ham Fighters to post him after the season (assuming that he even wants to play in MLB). What would a pitcher that's younger and better than Dice-K require in a posting fee? The Seibu Lions (Dice-K's former team) got $51 million just for negotiating rights. Darvish would certainly top that, and the Yankees should be in on it this time. Yu Darvish is not Kei Igawa. He throws hard, keeps the ball down, has very good command and (the best part) is only 22.