As the 2009 season unfolded in major league baseball, Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman may have caught himself recalling his time in Japan two seasons ago.
If so, it’s easy to see why.
Watching pitcher Zack Greinke carve up American League batters en route to the 2009 Cy Young Award had to be a lot like bearing witness to Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish dominate during his Sawamura Award-winning year in 2007.
“Wonderful being able to watch them pitch and compete,” Hillman told The Japan Times. “You knew if your team could get out to an early lead and score two or three runs, you were going to win the game. It was also a different confidence level for the entire team when both those guys were on the mound.”
Darvish and Greinke on the surface couldn’t be more different, but share a common thread in Hillman, who can see the similarities between them.
“Both guys command the ball with multiple pitches very well and they both have more than one out pitch,” Hillman said. “They both have the ability to reach back for extra velocity when they need it and both are workhorses who pitch lots of quality innings.”
Hillman got his first taste of what Darvish could do in his third year managing the Fighters when the rookie went 5-5 with a 3.53 ERA in 14 appearances in 2005. Darvish was 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 2006, helping lead the Fighters to the Japan Series title.
Darvish had already shot to rock-star status by 2007, when he won the Sawamura Award after a breakout year that saw him go 15-5 and finish with a 1.82 ERA, 9.10 K/9.
“His body was still developing when I had him,” Hillman said. “He had tremendous awareness of his skills and pitch development for a long lanky body. He also showed the ability to create different pitches and get a feel for them quickly.”
Darvish continued to put up big numbers after Hillman’s departure following the 2007 season. Darvish finished 16-4 with a 1.88 ERA in 2008 and won the Pacific League MVP award by going 15-5 with a 1.73 ERA.
Where Darvish found his footing early in his professional career, Greinke stumbled out of the gate.
Kansas City’s sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft, Greinke made his MLB debut in 2004 and finished 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA.
Things went downhill from there as Greinke posted a 5.80 ERA, winning just five games and leading the AL with 17 losses in 2005.
Greinke nearly gave up baseball in 2006 after leaving the team during spring training while struggling with anxiety disorder. He started in just three games that season.
He was 7-7 with a 3.69 ERA in 2007 and 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA in 2008, Hillman’s first year with the club.
Greinke’s breakout year came this season, when he rode a 16-8 record, 2.16 ERA and 9.50 K/9 to his first Cy Young Award.
“Greinke just this last season started learning to pitch instead of throw,” Hillman said. “He gets the most out of his frame and body and has learned a great feel for his mechanics.”
About the only thing more different than their paths to stardom is their personalities.
Greinke likes to avoid the media spotlight and has said he isn’t comfortable being the center of attention. After winning the Cy Young, Greinke noted one of the negatives was the increased attention it brought.
Darvish on the other hand seems made for the spotlight. He doesn’t particularly seek attention but doesn’t shy away from it either. A suave mix of good looks and charisma, Darvish oozes confidence as he navigates the media frenzy off the field as easily as he strikes out batters on it.
On the mound, Greinke is cool and relaxed. Not very vocal or demonstrative, the 26-year-old lets his fastball and an array of late-breaking secondary pitches do the talking for him. Darvish is more open with his emotions, sometimes letting out a guttural yell after recording a key out.
“Both guys were very quiet with their demeanors on and off the field,” Hillman said. “Darvish was more gregarious and visual with his adrenaline in key situations. Greinke just took every situation as it came and never got very outwardly excited.”
Three years older than Darvish, Greinke seems to have finally tapped into the reservoir of talent that made him minor league player of the year in 2003.
Darvish has come into his own incredibly quickly and has a world of baseball fanatics drooling based on the heights he could conceivably reach.
Having managed both, Hillman for one is a believer in the two aces.
“Both guys are great competitors who love to pitch in big games and pressure situations.”