Two weeks to go. Despite a weekend full of televised Spring Training baseball, it appears that we're no closer to having an answer on the rotation than we were a week ago. In actuality, the picture may be a bit muddier.
A week ago, it appeared Colby Lewis was going to take hold of one rotation spot after a 2-inning performance that saw his command look a bit like playoff Colby Lewis. Then Saturday happened, when Lewis didn't make it out of the 2nd inning. Afterward, Lewis indicated that he felt good and felt that his stuff was sharp, but seemed to understand the magnitude of the situation.
I've got to get outs. If I don't get outs, it's not very fair for me to make the ballclub over other guys. Even when I was on the roster, I always felt I had to get outs and prove myself. Hopefully I'll get a couple of more outings to prove myself.
In fairness, we've seen these types of outings from Colby before, even at his best. He's always been somewhat prone to the home run, which is why he gave up 1.5 home runs per 9 innings in 2011 and 2012. However, with Lewis, he has to prove he'll be able to get outs consistently to earn a spot. He very well may start the season either in the minors or on the DL to get some extended work in, but as far as Opening Day is concerned, he didn't provide us with any answers over the weekend.
Nick Tepesch didn't fare much better, as he has now given up 10 runs in 5 innings over his last two outings. With Tepesch, he had much of the same issue that Lewis did on Saturday. Namely, he couldn't get the ball down in the zone. For Tepesch, he doesn't have the advantage of any sustained Major League track record on his side.
For now, it appears that Tanner Scheppers may still be a possibility, with Robbie Ross also making his case. Ron Washington had intended to have roles defined by Wednesday of this week, but something tells me that he may need to allow some leniency for a few guys in order to get the best look at the big picture.
Although the rotation is certainly a muddy picture, the one part that offers some certainty is the very top. In Yu Darvish, the Rangers have an anchor that has the ability to single-handedly dominate any game that he starts.
Yesterday afternoon, Darvish made another start, extending his pitch count to 84 over 4 2/3 innings against the Chicago White Sox. He would certainly like to be more economical with his pitches, but considering he was working on some of his off-speed offerings after focusing on the fastball in recent starts, it becomes a case of, hey, just Spring Training.
That Yu Darvish is still trying to improve should be a great sign to all Rangers fans, and something that could end up netting him a Cy Young Award, a would-be first for the Rangers organization.
Over his first two seasons, Darvish has been able to confuse hitters with his stuff, specifically his slider and curveball, but has, at times, struggled with his fastball command. It appeared earlier in the Spring that he was working on the latter, and that yesterday, he was perhaps working toward having some more offspeed offering with which to get hitters out.
In order to take the next step, in my opinion, the one thing Darvish needs to focus on is being able to get hitters out when they aren't swinging out of the zone. Below, we see heat maps for Darvish in 2013 against left-handed batters and then against right-handed batters. Both maps show his strikeout pitches on the 2013 season.
It's important to note that of Darvish's 277 strikeouts in 2013, 221 were of the swing-and-miss variety. 186 of his strikeouts came off of sliders and curveballs.
Against lefties, Darvish used the curveball more, netting him 53 of his strikeouts. He added another 56 with his slider, mostly down and in. With both pitches, the offering was generally outside of the strike zone.
For now, however, I'd like to focus on how Darvish attacked righties. Against righties, he netted 126 strikeouts, with 72 of them coming off of the slider. Only 5 came off of curveballs. Fastballs? A grand total of 41.
While nothing is inherently wrong with those figures, it's important to make the distinction that 57 of the 72 strikeouts from sliders were of the swing-and-miss variety, and 38 of those were pitches considered to be outside of the strike zone.
On days in which hitters were swinging, Darvish was dominant. When they weren't, however, is when we saw the pitch count creep up and oftentimes, we maligned him for not using his fastball more.
Having said that, it's why I believe his work on fastball command coupled with some of his other offspeed offerings could prove vital in 2014. Yu Darvish must find a way to get hitters out when they're not chasing his nasty "stuff" outside of the strike zone.
For comparison, I wanted to see how Clayton Kershaw attacked hitters in his dominant 2013 season. Kershaw is, of course, a southpaw, so I decided to take a look at his strikeout pitches against left-handed hitters.
Of Kershaw's 232 strikeouts in 2013, 71 came against left-handed hitters. While he mixed a variety of fastballs, curveballs, and sliders -- 26, 22, and 23 for strikeouts, respectively -- it was the way in which he contined to attack the zone that was impressive. He managed to keep 38 of his 71 strikeouts against left-handers in various parts of the strikezone. Most notably, he painted the corners with his curveball for a strikeout 12 times. With the slider? 11 times. The fastball was his strikeout pitch in the strike zone 15 times.
While Yu Darvish will undoubtedly have a differing style from that of Clayton Kershaw, I think it's important that Darvish find ways to get outs within the strike zone more often in 2014. It will allow him to keep his pitch counts down and go deeper into games, which may prove important for saving the bullpen if our worst fears about the rest of the rotation do indeed come to pass.
The strikeout numbers may not approach record-setting territory as they did in 2013, but with an infield behind him that has the potential to be defensively elite, more contact down in the zone might not be the worst thing. Plus, we might get to see more nasty 2-seam fastballs like he had against Arizona on August 1, 2013. Yeah, Yu Can Do It. He's the anchor of this Rangers rotation, and we're two weeks away from seeing him face off against Cliff Lee on Opening Day.