Game-Changer: Yu Darvish | The Process Report

Game-Changer: Yu Darvish

The Rays faced Yu Darvish for the first time last night. I watched this start twice: once live, for narrative purposes, and the other this morning, to focus on Darvish and Darvish alone. The second time was more enjoyable, as it turns out.

You could not avoid the Darvish hype machine entering the season. The buzz has died lately because of a rough patch of starts. Darvish exited the first half with a 3.59 ERA, yet entered last night with a 4.51 mark. He had allowed five or more runs in four of his previous seven starts. It’s safe to write that the struggle’s cause did not have a ticket to Tuesday’s start.

Darvish is a 6-foot-5 right-hander with drop-and-drive mechanics, good velocity, and a plethora of secondary pitches. Depending on the source, Darvish either has seven, eight, nine, or 11 pitches in total. A deep arsenal is a staple for Japanese pitchers, as the game over there is more contact-orientated then the at-home version. The striking aspect about Darivh’s arsenal is how many of those pitches are quality. Anyone can fill their repertoire with show-me pitches; they just serve little practicality throughout a game. But not so with Darvish.

Let’s start the in-game observation with Darvish’s first inning matchup against Evan Longoria. Darvish starts Longoria with a four-seamer off the outside corner for a ball. There’s nothing unusual with that. Darvish then comes with a 72 mph curveball down and in for a called strike. Then he misses with a slider inside. Three pitches, three pitch types, three wide-ranging velocities. Here comes the slow curveball again, this time down and away, for strike two. The smallest speed differential between pitches so far is nine mph; or, well within the range for an acceptable fastball-changeup split.

Darvish cranks a 95 mph fastball down and away for ball three, and now you wonder if he won’t walk Longoria and face the next guy instead. Nope. Darvish tosses a slider that catches too much of the plate. Longoria, perhaps caught off guard by the aggression, fouls the pitch straight back. It’s the most hittable pitch of the at-bat, and one of the most hittable pitches of the night for the Rays. Darvish comes back with a 95 mph fastball down and in, and Longoria flies out.

Two weeks ago, Sam Miller had a fun piece about Zack Greinke playing a parlour game, wherein he tries to throw a pitch at every speed between 62 and 94 mph. Darvish might try his hand at the game one day. Check out the speed differentials in the Longoria at-bat:

1. 92 mph
2. -20 mph
3. +10 mph
4. -9 mph
5. +22 mph
6. -13 mph
7. +13 mph

Darvish dealt with some control problems in the second. He could not locate his two-seam fastball in the early going. This led directly to Luke Scott’s double: after back-to-back misses with the two-seamer, Darvish threw it again, but it caught too much of the plate and Scott sent it into right field. The big concern about Darvish in America stemmed from his average command. The explanation about average command that I’ve heard (and liked) is that it means a pitcher can locate down in the zone. From there, you get to worrying about locating to the glove-side, throwing quality strikes with all pitches, hitting the glove, and so on. People confuse command for control a lot.

Against Carlos Pena, Darvish revealed a fancy little sequence. After locating a two-seamer inside, just off the plate, Darvish came back with a temptation fastball above the zone. Darvish will eventually retire Pena on a four-seamer, Ryan Roberts on a two-seamer, and Jose Lobaton on a cutter. Three different pitches, each with different uses and circumstances, contributed three outs in one inning.

Darvish opened the third inning with a 70 mph curveball for strike one, marking one of the few times I remember him throwing the pitch to start an at-bat. I did notice him using the slow curve on one-strike counts. He seems to locate the pitch down in the zone well, which allows him to steal a strike. No batter is too likely to offer on a slow curve down in the zone unless he absolutely must. (Well, almost no batter—B.J. Upton will whiff on a high-60s curve down and away later in the game.) Another trend tied to the count that popped up is the paralysis fastball. Darvish couldn’t always locate the pitch down and away, but he came close on those occasions.

In the fourth inning, Darvish throws Ben Zobrist an 88 mph cutter for strike one, a 67 mph curve for strike two, and then a 79 mph slider, which Zobrist singles on. I can’t help but wonder how any batter succeeds against Darvish when he shows sequences like this. You can’t think or guess. He’s almost too crafty for that. You have to see the ball and swing and hope that it doesn’t dance out of the zone before your bat can make contact.

Darvish avoided patterns well. Remember how last season James Shields would typically ride his fastball, curveball, and then changeup on the first, second, and third times through the order? Darvish showed little signs of similar predictability. The one I picked up on had to do with his fastballs. The first time through the order, especially against the middle of the order, Darvish used his two-seam fastball. The next time through, he used his cutter. The last time through, he went with the splitter. Here’s one problem with guessing those pitches: He’s still using the four-seamer, the slow curve, and the slider. He’s got so many quality pitches and he mixes so well that you can’t guess and have a high correct percentage. I’ve watched every pitch twice, and some more than that, and I’d be lost if you asked me to guess what’s coming in real time.

The splitter, by the way, is the uppercut. This is Darvish’s changeup, and Tampa Bay’s hitters couldn’t help themselves from flinging at it. Without having seen the pitch from an angle besides the center field camera, I can’t say for sure, but I’d assume the pitch resembles a four-seamer until it tumbles out of the zone. The splitter fits the Greg Maddux strategy used to go: make the strikes look like balls and the balls look like strikes. I felt bad for Carlos Pena, who, later in the game, held up on the first two-strike splitter he saw, only to take an ugly swing on the second to end the at-bat.

I felt bad for Pena all game long. He saw 20 pitches, swung 13 times, whiffed five times, and fouled eight off. There was an instance on a 2-0 count where Darvish threw a cutter down and in to Pena. You just know Pena initially saw it as a four-seamer coming in down the middle, but the pitch danced inside and he couldn’t do anything with it. In another instance, Darvish blew a 94 mph fastball inside by Pena. Frankly, Pena had no real reason to be looking for it; which seems to describe a lot of Darvish’s sequencing.

Darvish did leave some pitches over the plate last night that the Rays probably should’ve hit. Deception is a wonderful thing for a pitcher to have on his side, and Darvish has it on his if the Rays’ swings are any indication. During a poor stretch earlier this season, Tigers manager Jim Leyland said something that I find myself quoting a lot: You can’t tip your hat to the opposing pitcher after every game. Sometimes pitchers throw good games because the offense was poor, other times the offense is poor because the pitcher is throwing a good game. I tip my cap to Darvish. The stuff and sequencing he displayed on Tuesday makes me wonder how he ever lose a game. Maybe Darvish never wins a Cy Young award or starts an All-Star game. But he looked the part of international superstar.

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  1. […] the Rays recent struggles with pitchers that possess a lot of variety (Yu Darvish and Carlos Villanueva) perhaps Maddon’s mission was simple: limit Garcia’s […]

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