The cool thing about baseball is that every year there’s some player or pitcher that stands out above the rest — one that everybody says is the next greatest. And sure enough we wait with anticipation to see this person, and when we finally do, it’s the reason you watch the game, and hopefully they don’t disappoint.
In the case of this year’s World Baseball Classic, there are two internationally known pitchers that everybody anticipated seeing: Yu Darvish and Aroldis Chapman.
Yu, from Japan, 22 years old, 6 foot 5, throws in the mid 90’s with a slider, a curve ball, a split and a change up. A whole arsenal right? Whenever you hear he’s got the “whole arsenal, he’s got 4 or 5 pitches”, you say, “Yeah, whatever. A couple of them don’t work.” When I saw Yu pitch the other day for the first time, I was blown away.
And last winter during hot stove season, Bobby Valentine, who manages in Japan, had raved about Yu. Understand, Bobby V has been a top player in baseball at one time, a manager for a long, long time and managed Nolan Ryan! He has an idea what he’s talking about. He told me that Yu could be the best pitcher he’s ever seen. This is a guy who watched anyone you can think of from 1965 to now. The best ever!
I couldn’t wait to call Bobby and tell him “You’re wrong,” when I saw Yu Darvish pitch. You know what? I haven’t made that call yet.
The thing that is so impressive about him — outside of his youth, his size and all the things you look for in a pitcher — is his ability to duplicate his delivery. As a hitter, you’re always looking for an edge — some way to pick up a certain pitch. Here’s how he holds his arm when he throws a breaking ball. Here’s how he hold his hand in his glove when he throws a fastball. Or he may change his windup, his motion, his tempo — whatever it might be — to give you some of kind of edge to anticipate what’s coming.
When I broke this guy down with slo-mo & split screen, using all the technology available to us, I could not distinguish between his windup when he’s throwing a breaking ball and his windup when he’s throwing a fastball. Ridiculous. Ridiculous! That’s the only thing I can say: ridiculous. Will someone hit him? Absolutely. But can he possibly be the greatest of all-time? Yes, he could. Only time will tell.
As for Chapman from Cuba, anytime you hear that a guy throws 100 MPH, you think of Sid Finch. Yeah, that guy — the April Fool’s joke from Sports Illustrated years ago.
But sure enough, first thing I saw was him warming up and his wing span. He looked like the sprinter Usain Bolt! I thought, is this Bolt on a baseball field? Then I find out he’s about 6-6 with a wing span like Bill Russell. And then he’s a lefty, too! He gets on the mound, he’s got great mechanics. Sound as can be. And sure enough he’s delivering a nice fluid fastball, he’s got a breaking pitch – he was nasty!
To see Yu Darvish and Aroldis Chapman, if they ever get a chance to play in the majors, you can only imagine the impact they’ll have on baseball.
Spring training is not about wins and losses, it’s about progress. What I mean by that is, there’s three tiers of players: 1) the young guy trying to get established, 2) the established player, 3) the old guy trying to fit. Each one of them has nothing to do with wins and losses. Spring training is about development in those three categories. We would like to believe it’s important that your team is 5-0 in spring training, as opposed to being 0-5, but at the end of the day it’s about the three categories of players.
Let me explain.
If I’m a young player, trying to make an impression, trying to make the team, this is my spring training because the established, veteran guys are playing in the World Baseball Classic. They’re gone. If I’m on a team that has a player in the WBC that plays my position, I have to capitalize because I’m in front of the big league manager every day. And the longer I’m in front of him, the better off I am.
If I’m that established player, spring training to me is getting ready for that bell to ring in April. I want to make sure I have my swing right – I’m gonna take a couple of at bats then I’m going down to the lower fields and I’m working on base hits. And honestly, I don’t know if we won or lost that game we played until I check the board the next day to see what hitting group I’m in. You’re gone. You come out of the game in the 4th inning, and they play another couple more hours – you’re already at dinner before that game is over.
For that veteran guy, like Pedro Martinez, this is a very important time in spring training. You have to show people what you can do and that’s why the WBC is important. It’s high level competition and teams are going to use that to evaluate. That’s why the Red Sox signed Matsuzaka when they did, because he pitched so well in the WBC. If you think it’s not important, it’s important. It’s important because it is great scouting ground where all the top scouts know they got all the top talent in the world in these four different regions. And if they want to go scout a player, this is when they go. If they want to see if a kid from Korea can really compete, then they’re going to watch him play. If someone wants to see if Yu Darvish is really as great as they say, when else are they going to see him compete on stage in international competition and really know if he can get major league hitters out.
It’s a very interesting spring.