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Darvish second to none since shock loss on Opening Day

by Jason Coskrey

Even in a season that’s shaping up to be the Year of the Pitcher, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish still stands out among the crowd.

Darvish has been Japan’s premier hurler for years, almost seamlessly taking over upon Daisuke Matsuzaka’s departure in 2006. Still, the run the 25-year-old has been on in recent weeks is Herculean even by his standards.

Since a surprising Opening Day loss to the Seibu Lions, during which he gave up seven runs in seven innings, Darvish (8-1) has won eight straight starts in mostly dominating fashion.

His last six outings have bordered on the historic.

Darvish threw five complete games and four shutouts during that span. He tied a Pacific League record with his third straight shutout on June 8 and his current streak of 44 innings without allowing a run is the second best in league history.

Even that can’t accurately sum up how good he’s been.

Whether it’s the NPB’s new ball or something else, pitchers have been having success not seen for decades early this year.

Eight pitchers currently have an ERA under 1.60. Darvish ranks third among them with a 1.42 ERA, trailing only Tohoku Rakuten’s Masahiro Tanaka, the NPB leader, at 1.33 and Yomiuri lefty Tetsuya Utsumi (1.38).

The aforementioned trio can reasonably be considered statistically the three best hurlers to this point. Just not in that order.

If we compare Tanaka and Utsumi with Darvish through the prism of fielding independent pitching (FIP), a clearer and very different picture is painted.

FIP is a measurement which focuses solely on things a pitcher can control; strikeouts, walks, hits by pitches and home runs. This removes factors out his control, such as the defense — no matter how superb or shoddy — behind him.

Here, Darvish is far ahead of the others with a stunning 1.56 FIP, followed by Tanaka (2.10), and Utsumi (3.69).

Just to widen our pool, lets add the other five pitchers with sub-1.60 ERAs, Softbank’s Toshiya Suguichi (1.42), Yakult’s Shohei Tateyama (1.43), Chiba Lotte’s Yuki Karakawa (1.45), Darvish’s teammate Masaru Takeda (1.48), and Chunichi’s Kazuki Yoshimi (1.59).

Again, no one can touch Darvish with Karakawa leading that group with a 2.41 FIP, followed by Yoshimi (2.55), Sugiuchi (2.68), Takeda (2.97), and Tateyama (3.39).

Darvish also has the lowest WHIP of the group, and in Japan, at 0.71 followed by Takeda (0.77), Tanaka (0.82), Karakawa (0.89) Tateyama (0.90), Sugiuchi (0.93) and Yoshimi (1.04) with Utsumi again bringing up the rear at (1.10).

Strikeouts are also not much of a contest. Darvish leads Japan with 83. Tanaka has 75, Sugiuchi has 74, Karakawa has fanned 51, Tateyama has 46, Takeda and Utsumi each have 36 and Yoshimi has 35.

What it all adds up to, other than Utsumi being a poster-child for not relying on ERA as an absolute evaluator, is that right now Darvish is on another level.

His numbers far outpace the others even accounting for that one uncharacteristic April night at Sapporo Dome. Take that out, and Darvish’s numbers border on the unreal.

It’s impossible to think he can keep up his current pace, though it’s almost as equally improbable to see just how much better than everyone else the Fighters’ ace is right now, especially over his last six starts.

So yes, the first half of 2011 is certainly shaping up to be the Year of the Pitcher. And that pitcher’s name is Yu Darvish.