The Yu Darvish Identity Crisis

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In Yu Darvish’s first nine starts of the 2013 season, he had a 7-1 record. In the subsequent nine starts, his record dropped to 1-3. This change in the number of wins accredited to Darvish has caused some extra attention to be given to how exactly Darvish is executing his game plan, despite very little change in Darvish’s performance in statistics like runs allowed and innings pitched, as in the ones that a pitcher actually has control over.  
Darvish himself addressed his critics after his June 30th start (in which he picked up his only win of his back nine starts): “I just wanted to shut all the people up who are talking about my fastball.”

Then, after taking the loss at home against the Houston Astros, Darvish sounded off again in a similar manner: “Not just this outing, but the last outing I think I threw too many fastballs, and I think I’m a breaking ball pitcher.”

In summary, over the last two starts Darvish shoved fastballs in order to silence his critics (Evan Grant the most public of them all). His pitch usage backs that up. Below is a chart that shows the change in pitch frequency between Darvish’s first 16 starts this season, and the last two (via brooksbaseball.net):

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You can see the massive jumps in the number of four-seam fastballs thrown to both right-handed and left-handed hitters. You can also see that more cutters were thrown to lefties, and more sinkers were thrown to righties, each a type of fastball. At the expense of these additional fastballs was a decrease in the frequency of breaking pitches, namely the slider and curve.

The shame in that is that Darvish’s slider is his best pitch, and arguably one of the best pitches in all of baseball. It deserves its own article alone. In 2013, Darvish has thrown his slider for a strike 72% of the time (more than any other pitch), and has induced a 21% whiff rate, and he has dominated hitters with the slider while throwing it more than any other pitch. 

It’s odd to see such a massive change by a pitcher who has been among the top 10 or 15 pitchers in all of baseball this year across the board. Seemingly, nothing was broken, so what was being fixed?

The added attention to Darvish’s approach on the mound, and the resulting shift in pitch patterns in his last two outings was made in effort to get Darvish back to the dominating results he produced at the end of 2012, when he relied heavily on his cut fastball to induce weak contact.

In that dominating stretch in 2012, Darvish posted a 2.35 ERA, held opponents to a .235 on-base percentage, and had a 10.5 K/9 rate. In his first 16 starts this season, Darvish had a 2.95 ERA, held opponents to a .262 on-base percentage, and had a 12.1 K/9 rate. Certainly, Darvish was better to finish 2012, but what he has done in 2013 has been impressive in its own right.

The most concerning thing in all of this is that the witch hunt for “fixing” Darvish produced its intended result – Darvish changed what he was doing. Now, after looking too hittable against the worst team in baseball, apparently the dedication to throw more fastballs will be abandoned. Clearly, in the estimation of the guy actually throwing the baseballs, simply throwing more of the hard ones isn’t what he needs.

The reality is that the suggestion that Darvish needs to throw more fastball was misguided. At the heart of the matter was that Darvish needs to throw more strikes, pitch more efficiently, and work deeper into the game. One possible solution (throwing more fastballs) was identified as the best answer, tried, and failed.

Darvish needing to pitch more efficiently has nothing to do with the effect of high pitch counts on Darvish, in my opinion. He’s a horse; he can handle the workload. The collateral damage of Darvish not pitching deeper into games is the key. With the current lack of health on the Rangers pitching staff, having a starter who can provide seven or eight innings of quality work every fifth day would go a long way to giving a tired bullpen some kind of respite.

“Throw more strikes” isn’t exactly telling Darvish something he doesn’t already know. Sometimes pitchers go through slumps too, which is what Darvish is in right now. Look around baseball, and you can see other pitchers at the top of the game going through slumps too. On the positive side of things is that even while in a slump, Darvish has given his team a chance to win most of the games he has pitched, which is a rarity. That pesky issue of fewer pitcher wins for Darvish recently has more to do with the run support he’s received than a dropoff in performance by the Ace. But a lack of pitcher wins is no reason to make a philosophical shift to pitching.

At this point, I’ve grown tired of seeing and hearing people talking as if they have the solution for the best way for Darvish to pitch. Ever since he entered the league, everyone who watched him seemed to think they were an expert on what kind of pitcher Darvish should be. Even at his best, there are still those who aren’t satisfied with it being enough, and want to keep insisting on changes. Everyone sees how good he could be, and have determined they know the one way to get him there. The reality is that Darvish is still learning to be a MLB pitcher, and it’s a process. Having his approach jerked around from one quick fix to another won’t aid that process, and besides, he’s been an amazing pitcher through it all anyway.

All MLB pitchers get critiqued to some degree, and while Darvish has gotten more than his performance has warranted, part of the process for Darvish will be to block out that criticism and not let it affect his game.

Yu’s just got to do Yu. Outside of his coaches and his catcher, all the rest of us should just shut up and enjoy the process, and always remember: he isn’t normal.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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