The unfortunate part about being a fan of the San Antonio Spurs is that, on an annual basis, the team is in the NBA playoffs. Then you have seasons like this year, where you have a feeling that something special could happen, and it makes it difficult to fully focus on baseball. While the NBA Finals didn't end the way I would have liked (I swear Game 6 scenarios must hate me), I'm still immensely proud of what the Spurs accomplished this season by pushing Miami to a Game 7 and having the championship still in question even within the final minute.
Nonetheless, even though I haven't been able to devote my full attention to baseball, I've still watched the Rangers and followed everything going on with the club. After last night's 4-3 walk-off loss to the Yankees, I found myself asking, "What's happening to Yu Darvish?"
So far this season, it's been a tale of two pitchers. While Darvish hasn't been bad by any stretch, he's gone from dominant to start the season to just good in recent weeks. Following a May 5 win against the Boston Red Sox, Ron Washington had this to say about Darvish:
"He's a No. 1 pitcher. He just had to get his foot on the ground in the United States. He has pitches, and, because he can throw anything at any time for a strike, it makes him tough."
Since that time, Darvish has gradually moved away from what made him so effective early in the season.
The chart above shows the pitch statistics for Darvish's April 2 start in Houston; the near-perfect game. On that night, Darvish had his entire repertoire of pitches working for him, throwing 79 of his 111 pitches for strikes and only allowing one baserunner on a Marwin Gonzalez hit with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning. He worked primarily wit his cutter and fastball, used his slider as a strikeout pitch, and threw in the occasional curveball to keep hitters off-balance. He recorded 27 whiffs (swing-and-misses), 58 SNIPs (strikes not in play), 14 strikeouts, and no walks. Fast forward to last night and the results look a little different:
Last night in New York against the Yankees, Darvish only lasted 5.1 innings with 7 hits and 2 walks. While still throwing 72 of his 110 pitches for strikes, he only amassed 10 whiffs and 52 SNIPs. Overall, those numbers aren't alarming, and while the Yankees managed more hits and walks than the Astros did on April 2, the strikes are still there on the whole. So what's different?
The obvious answer is home runs. Darvish gave up 3 of them last night, the only 3 runs he surrendered. He's always going to be prone to issuing walks with the type of pitcher he is, so that isn't so much an item of concern. The difference lies in pitch selection. The dominance Yu Darvish displayed to begin the season started with his fastball and ended with the slider. Looking at the second chart, it's easy to see that the slider has become the primary go-to pitch for Darvish, and hitters are no longer swinging and missing on as many of them. At the same time, Darvish has moved away from using his fastball, and his fastest offering last night sat almost 2 mph lower than what he was able to reach back for on April 2.
Darvish has seemingly lost confidence in throwing his fastball for strikes, something that can sometimes be easily identifiable by watching him pitch. He's no longer getting ahead of hitters early and forcing them to swing at the slider or helplessly watch it catch the outer corner of the strike zone. Instead, hitters are sitting on the breaking ball and simply waiting for it up in the zone. Of the 3 home runs the Yankees hit on Darvish, 2 were on sliders. The other? a 68 mph curveball.
Now, while I do find the fact that Darvish has regressed to old habits from when he first started in the Major Leagues, he made adjustments last year to finish the season stronger than arguably any other pitcher in baseball. I think he can do the same here. Right now, it just becomes a matter of Darvish not allowing himself to become discouraged and revert to bad habits if he doesn't have his fastball in the early-going of games. By no means has he been bad, but for a pitcher that has shown he can be one of, if not the most dominant pitcher in the game, simply good just isn't good enough.
Mike Maddux, it's your move.