Yu Darvish brings ‘jaw-dropping’ skill to MLB

Japanese pitcher with rock-star persona could join Texas Rangers

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“Like most ballplayers, he’s been a standout since a little kid,” said Kuehnert. “He is very mentally 99 percent Japanese. But his environment was quite international. He stood out because he was so big and good looking. He’s been pampered in a different way than the average ballplayer here. He’s grown up with a different view on life. He’s more of a maverick.”

Kuehnert said he worried on draft day in 2005 about Darvish’s slacker reputation in high school, compared with Japanese kids known for practicing day and night.

“It was said that he sometimes avoided practice in high school,” he recalled. “We were told at times he had a bad shoulder, bad knee, or a bad back. I don’t think any of that was true. I think they were all shams to avoid having to practice as much as his teammates. He wanted to do things his own way.”

Japanese media had also played up a story about the underage Darvish smoking and “gambling” in a pachinko parlor, which is more like the Japanese version of a U.S. pinball or video-game arcade.

“He was immature, in hindsight, in the beginning,” Kuehnert said. “It’s turned around.”

Darvish gained celebrity beyond the sports world by posing in bed half-nude, covered by a blanket up to his waist, on the cover of fashion magazine “An-an”. After that, his Texas-born manager Trey Hillman, currently bench coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, sat him down and told him to “grow up and focus,” according to Kuehnert. “Hillman told him, ‘You have the chance to be the best pitcher in the world. Why are you doing these things outside of baseball?’ “

Kuehnert says Hillman really helped Darvish focus on training. Darvish even stayed in Japan to train while others went on overseas trip to celebrate Japan’s international victories. “He realized that if he trained properly, he could be one of the greats. I think the Trey Hillman lecture to him helped a lot. He’s stepped it up a lot since that.”

Darvish set up a charity fund in 2007 dedicated to providing water in developing countries, and he also gave generously to the March 11 tsunami victims.

Some have wondered if Darvish’s impending divorce could distract him, since Japanese family courts often deprive fathers the right to ever visit children awarded to mothers. Japanese media branded his November 2007 marriage to Saeko, a Japanese TV starlet, a “shotgun” wedding. Saeko is known in Japan for posing in bikinis and appearing in coquettish roles on TV shows watched by millions of older Japanese men who fantasize about schoolgirls. She has recently released a book about their relationship, and wouldn’t comment on reports that she’s delaying the divorce to gain custody of both children and a share of Darvish’s future MLB income.

Kuehnert predicts Darvish will adjust well to American baseball culture, as many Japanese and Latin players do. Cultural adjustment is “not a barrier to the good players,” he said. “It’s way overblown for everybody.”

Kuehnert says Darvish is best compared to another flame-throwing right-hander from Osaka, Hideo Nomo, whose wicked forkball handcuffed major league hitters during his first three seasons with the Dodgers in the mid-1990s.

“I think he’s as good as Nomo was in his first three years, if not better,” Kuehnert said. “Darvish doesn’t walk a lot of guys like Matsuzaka. He has the good parts of Matsuzaka but not the bad parts.”

But he does worry that Japanese coaches have left Darvish in games too long, since he’s so dominant, with an ERA under 2.00 throughout his career.

Matsuzaka had been brainwashed to think he has to throw a lot. They thought the way to build up arm strength is to throw the hell out of it,” Kuehnert said. “There’s some of that concern about Darvish.

He’s grown up to believe that a man has to finish a game. He’s thrown a lot, though not as much as Matsuzaka. Darvish is young and he’s strong. I wouldn’t be as concerned as I was with Matsuzaka.”

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