The Rosin Bag: Yu Darvish

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The Rosin Bag is a new weekly series that highlights and examines the best and sometimes the worst pitching performances of the week for the Texas Rangers.

Yu Darvish is one of the elite pitchers in the game today and has shown enough the past two seasons to prove that he is the ace this organization so desperately needed after the 2011 season. When Darvish is on and generating the swing and misses we have grown accustomed to there is not a more dynamic and exciting pitcher to watch and we are lucky that he is in a Rangers uniform. Saying all of that, I think it is worth examining an area of weakness not intended to forecast doom for Darvish, but rather serve as a warning for when his “stuff” digresses over time.

A phrase we have grown accustomed to hearing on Twitter and sports talk radio since Yu Darvish made his debut is, “despite not having his best stuff Darvish…(fill in accomplishment here)”. On Tuesday, despite not having his best stuff Darvish still struck out 10 batters bringing his season total to 137 with probably three starts left before the All-Star break. The question that needs to be answered though is what is the difference when Darvish has his best stuff and when he does not? Keep in mind that the difference in success and failure at the big league level is often a matter of inches or even less. Darvish throws so many pitches and has so much movement that his good outings are often camouflaged by the strike percentage and pitch count. We are programmed to associate good stuff with low pitch count in the middle innings and a high swing and miss rate. Darvish consistently gets that swing and miss, but his pitch count is usually up by the fifth inning or so, thus leading us to the “despite not having his best stuff” tag when describing his most recent start. When examining Darvish it’s easy to get caught up in looking at his strikeout rates, ERA, and maybe his win/loss totals and those are all impressive, but as hard as it is to find weakness in his game there is one area of concern. There are two stats that are concerning and may be the underlying reason we sometimes say he doesn’t have his best stuff and those two stats are first pitch strikes and balls thrown. When pitchers get ahead they put the batter on his heels and it becomes a defensive at bat for the hitter putting the pitcher at the advantage. Using other team aces around the league as a comparison, below is how Darvish ranks against his peers in throwing first pitch strikes:
Pitcher
Adam Wainwright
Matt Harvey
Clayton Kershaw
Felix Hernandez
Justin Verlander
Yu Darvish
Team
Cardinals
Mets
Dodgers
Mariners
Tigers
Rangers
F-Strike %
65.50%
65.10%
60.50%
63.00%
63.60%
58.60%
As you can see Darvish is last on this list and he ranks 71st among all starters in first strike percentage. Being behind in the count leads to higher pitch counts, feeding hitters their pitches more often, and generally laboring more throughout the start. Since Darvish is starting more counts at 1-0 than some of the other aces around the league, how do hitters do in those 1-0 counts? Below shows how hitters have done this season in 1-0 counts versus 0-1 counts against Darvish. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a pitcher will have more success when they get ahead of a hitter, but I think it’s important to see to help highlight this area of weakness for Darvish.
Split               BA   OBP  SLG   OPS
1-0 Count    .391 .375  .696  1.071
0-1 Count    .231 .231  .538   .769

The next important metric to examine is how hitters do against Darvish when he gets ahead versus when he gets behind.
Split                     BA    OBP    SLG  OPS
Batter Ahead    .267   .460  .500  .960
Pitcher Ahead  .135   .141   .198   .339

Once again there isn’t anything earth shattering in the results of this data, but I think it is important as it pertains to Yu and how he could improve his game over the course of a long season. The last piece of data to look at is how many total pitches plus balls and strikes Darvish throws compared to those team aces used in the previous comparison. Once again this data is from the 2013 season only:
Pitcher
Adam Wainwright
Clayton Kershaw
Felix Hernandez
Justin Verlander
Matt Harvey
Yu Darvish
Team
Cardinals
Dodgers
Mariners
Tigers
Mets
Rangers
Balls
490
574
588
541
537
605
Strikes
1054
1049
1067
1063
1038
1026
Pitches
1544
1623
1655
1604
1575
1631

Darvish has thrown the highest number of balls and the least amount of strikes in this sample while finishing second to only Felix Hernandez in total number of pitches thrown. The 1631 pitches thrown ranks Darvish third in baseball behind Felix Hernandez and Justin Masterson, but his 1026 strikes thrown ranks him 12th among starters who have thrown over 1000 pitches this season slightly ahead of Jeff Samardzija and James Shields. While throwing that many pitches isn’t a concern it’s the lack of strikes that is concerning. A good starter is going to throw a lot of pitches if he goes deep into games and is the type of ace that Darvish is, but to be near the bottom among qualified starters in strikes thrown is something that I’d like to see Darvish improve on. He is also 7th among all starters in the number of balls thrown with his 605 this season in comparison to Verlander who ranks 30th in the same stat.

I know that pointing out weaknesses or imperfections in Darvish is a risky proposition considering how great he is and the superb season he is having, but it’s unfair to assume that he has zero flaws in his game. What makes Darvish so great? It’s that despite getting behind hitters and not throwing as many strikes as some of his peers, his stuff is so nasty it has the ability to overcome these shortcomings. Give Darvish average or even slightly above average stuff and these numbers get exploited and would lower Darvish’s overall value as a starter. The difference in success and failure in this league is microscopic, so as long as Darvish can generate the swing and miss with his movement and overall nastiness of his stuff, long-term success still seems imminent. 

Jeff  Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Jeff.Johnson@ShutDownInning.com or on Twitter @Houstonhog
Jeff Johnson

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