Following Yu Darvish's third start of the season, our own Rob Neyer wondered if the Japanese import was avoiding strikes. After all, all of the scouting reports -- and his numbers in Japan -- showed him to be a pitcher with exceptional command and control of the strike zone. But, to that point, he had walked 13 batters in just under 18 innings, and had "just" 14 strikeouts to counter the free passes.
He picked up separation between his strikeout and walk rates last night against the powerful Yankees lineup, thanks to 10 punch outs and two walks allowed in 8⅓ innings. He scattered seven hits and didn't allow a run, missing a complete-game shutout in part because he had 119 pitches on the night. This was the first glimpse of the Yu Darvish we read about all last season and throughout the winter, both before and after the Rangers won his rights and signed him to a six-year deal.
His overall peripherals are still a bit funky -- 1.6 K/BB, .333 batting average on balls in play, and over five walks per nine innings -- but he's somehow the owner of a 2.42 ERA despite this.
Darvish was efficient with his pitches, throwing over 20 in just one frame, and with between 61 and 81 percent strikes in every inning except for his last, in which he only threw six pitches and three strikes. His four-seam fastball got the most play, but he didn't use it to induce a single whiff. He did throw 26 of the 42 for strikes, though, helping to set up his wide array of swing-and-miss-inducing offerings. His slider (three whiffs on 15 pitches), curve (two of seven), cutter (five of 20), split-fastball (two of nine), and two-seam fastball (three of 14) all did what they were supposed to, for both called and swinging strikes, and he looked like a different pitcher for his efforts.
Even in his other starts, Darvish has shown promise with his stuff. According to Brooks Baseball, he has three pitches that are at least two standard deviations above the mean in terms of inducing swings-and-misses, and two of those are at least one SD better than average for forcing groundballs, too. (Using standard deviation rather than just average helps give context to the idea of above-average -- a full SD is a significant difference.) Then there's his cutter, which to this point is nearly five standard deviations better at causing groundballs. That's an eye-popping rate, even for this early in the year.
The difference this time out is that he didn't throw as many balls as he had in the past, instead attacking hitters and the strike zone more often, getting them to swing when maybe they had laid off before. Darvish couldn't get his curveball or cutter over the plate against the Tigers in his third start, and he failed to generate a single whiff on the latter. Against the lowly Twins, all his pitches except for his curve crossed the plate at a below-average frequency. Things were even worse while facing the Mariners, except it was his slider working for him instead of the bender.
Tuesday night's start against the Yankees is the first time Darvish unleashed his full repertoire effectively, with every pitch working to get hitters out one way or another. It doesn't mean he's all done adjusting to the majors after eight-plus frames of high-quality pitching, but it shows you what he's capable of, and what the Rangers are hoping they are paying for through 2017.
Darvish lasted into the sixth in his first start, throwing 110 pitches. The story was basically the same the next time out, with 102 pitches through 5-2/3 frames. Things were slightly better against the Tigers -- especially considering the difference between that lineup and the others he had faced to that point -- but he was still not hitting the sweet spot of efficiency that lets pitchers go deep into games, thanks to 121 pitches in 6⅓. All of the wasted pitches and walks will do that to you, and, unfairly or not, that's why the Daisuke Matsuzaka/Yu Darvish analogies cropped up across websites and sports pages everywhere.
Starts like Tuesday's should help dispel that silly notion, but he'll need far more of them to silence the cynical. As his stuff hasn't disappeared, and he sat down one of the league's most frightening lineups for nearly an entire outing, we can see that the ability is certainly there. Next up, consistency, and trusting his ridiculous stuff against any lineup set against him.