Darvish impressing experts with his strikeout ability


Staff Writer

If you watch the home broadcast for one of Yu Darvish’s starts for the Texas Rangers, you will, at some point, hear play-by-play man Steve Busby exhorting, “got him swinging,” after Darvish fans a batter.

You’ll hear it a lot, too.

After fanning seven Blue Jays on Saturday, Darvish (7-2) leads the majors with 118 strikeouts, and 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings. At his current pace he would become the first pitcher in over a decade to record 300 Ks in one season.

While his immense talent was apparent during his time in Japan, after just a little more than a year in the majors the 26-year-old is pitching at a much higher level than during his NPB years.

“(He’s) smarter now,” Trey Hillman, Darvish’s first manager with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the current bench coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, told The Japan Times.

“He used to just get away with talent, now he has to have more of a game plan that adjusts with more hitters to learn, who are always trying to make adjustments, causing him to be able to adjust, also (with) the sheer number, learning curve, travel, all making it more challenging.”

But can Darvish reach 300?

“If he can keep up this pace, maybe,” said one MLB scout who asked to not be named. “I wouldn’t be surprised. But this is MLB, anything can happen. Even if he hits 200, 250, that’s nothing to be disappointed about.”

The last time MLB saw a 300-strikeout season was 2002, when Arizona teammates Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) hit the mark. Johnson struck out 290 in 2004, but since then, no one has come closer than Detroit’s Justin Verlander’s 269 in 2009.

No Japanese player has recorded more than Hideo Nomo’s 236 for the Dodgers in 1995.

“If anyone can do it in today’s game, it’s him (Darvish), but if I were a betting man I would say he just falls short,” former MLB and NPB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski said in an email. “He has too many things working against him, with Texas’ heat, a coaching staff that will be concerned about innings/pitch counts and the added year of the five-man rotation.”

If he reaches the mark, it’ll likely happen in front of Nolan Ryan, the current Rangers CEO, who usually takes in games from the stands.

That would be fitting as Ryan, who set the single-season record with 383 in 1973, was perhaps the game’s preeminent strikeout artist. The “Ryan Express” had six 300-strikeout seasons, is MLB’s all-time strikeout leader with 5,714, and one of two players, Sandy Koufax being the other, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame with more strikeouts than innings pitched.

Former NPB and MLB manager Bobby Valentine has spent time around both Darvish and Ryan. He was a teammate of Ryan’s on the California Angels from 1973-75, and his manager from 1989-92 with the Rangers. Many years later, he observed Darvish from the opposing dugout during his second stint managing the Chiba Lotte Marines from 2004-09 and the Boston Red Sox last season.

“Nolan Ryan had two great pitches,” Valentine told The Japan Times by telephone, “and when he got older, he developed a third great pitch. His curveball was a really good curveball, his fastball was the best fastball in the league, and then he developed a changeup. So his stuff was hard to hit. He was also a great competitor.”

Comparing the repertoire of Texas’ past and present star pitchers, Valentine said, “Unlike Nolan Ryan, who had only two pitches most of his career, and then developed his third, Darvish has many pitches. His ball can move in three different directions and at many different speeds.”

Valentine later added, “Remember, he throws as hard as Nolan Ryan did, and he has better breaking stuff and better control. He’s a much better pitcher than Nolan Ryan was.”

One of the things that makes Darvish such an effective strikeout pitcher, and thus a threat to become the first in over a decade to crack 300, is his ridiculous repertoire. Brooks Baseball’s PITCH f/x system lists Darvish as throwing a slider, four-seam fastball, cut fastball, sinker, splitter, slow curveball, and changeup.

“He has the power fastball, the absurd movement with still great velocity and sharp off-speed pitches,” Nitkowski said. “The velocity range he pitches in makes it extremely difficult for hitters to stay balanced.”

Batters step to the plate knowing Darvish can throw everything at them but the kitchen sink — he’ll probably figure that one out soon enough — at different speeds and in different locations and be downright filthy while doing it.

One MLB scout told The Japan Times, “Darvish throws so many pitches, and is able to excel in using all those pitches. I don’t think MLB batters have witnessed anyone of that caliber until now.”

Maybe the best visualization of this is the GIF created by 27-year-old Rangers fan Drew Sheppard, a multimedia designer who resides in Texas.

The GIF is an overlay of five pitches — a 97 mph (156 kph) four-seam fastball, 96 mph (154.5 kph) two-seam fastball, 85 mph (137 kph) slider, 78 mph (125.5 kph) slider more vertical in its break, and finally a 64 mph (103 kph) curve (all from pretty much the same arm angle no less) — from a game earlier this season.

“I had the idea of overlaying Darvish’s pitch types to emphasize their impressive movement and velocity differences a couple weeks prior, and posted a similar but less refined image to the Texas Rangers blog Lone Star Ball at that time,” Sheppard wrote in an email. “The viral GIF is from his April 24th start vs. the L.A. Angels in which Yu had perhaps the best stuff I’ve seen from him as a Ranger with pitches ranging from 61 to 98 mph (98.1 kph to 158 kph), and I immediately started to put together the improved version after the game and posted it the following morning.”

The GIF went viral almost immediately after Sheppard posted it to Reddit.

“The response was overwhelming, I had friends sending me links to coverage of the GIF for days which was a lot of fun,” Sheppard said. “After Darvish’s near-perfect game and generally excellent start to the season there was a lot of hype and interest in him at the time within the baseball community, and I think the novelty of the visualization added mainstream appeal.”

For every MLB hitter who has lingered in the batter’s box an extra second in disbelief after facing Darvish, there are multiple NPB players who can relate.

Darvish had 1,250 strikeouts and a career 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings in NPB. He had 52 games with at least 10 strikeouts, and in 2007 tied a Japan Series record by fanning 13 Chunichi Dragons in Game 1, prompting probable future Hall of Famer Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, at the time a veteran of 20 seasons, to remark, “He’s the best pitcher I have ever faced.”

Hillman managed Darvish from 2005-07, before leaving to become the manager of the Kansas City Royals, and described the right-hander as, “Extremely talented with huge hands enabling him to create different grips. Also extremely competitive.”

Darvish was 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA in Japan. His final year, 2011, may have been his best, as he finished 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts.

“He was attacking every hitter,” says Fighters pitcher Brian Wolfe. “Every pitch, he didn’t care. It was nice to see. When you go after hitters like that, it’s hard for hitters to be comfortable in the box.”

Darvish contends with a deeper pool of power hitters in MLB, but having honed his skills in NPB’s more contact-oriented environment may be aiding his transition.

“That’s an interesting question,” Nitkowski said. “I struggled to generate swings and misses in Japan. So if you think about it, learning to strike out hitters in Japan should mean you would strike out more hitters in MLB. The one caveat to that is you have to be a power pitcher. I don’t think the softer throwers in Japan strike out more MLB hitters.

“I also think there is something to be said about the lost art of the two-strike approach. The consensus is hitters don’t care about strikeouts as much as they used to, so they’re willing to let it fly in a two-strike count. That works in Darvish’s favor in the quest for 300.”

There were eight 300-strikeout seasons from 1990-2000, but there have been only three since. There are many reasons, not least of which the changes in the game and how teams manage pitchers’ workloads.

There are fewer hurlers allowed to regularly operate with high pitch counts now, though there are still some, such as Detroit’s Verlander.

Johnson in 2002 had 11 starts with at least 120 pitches thrown — twice reaching 140 — and Schilling had four. Johnson had 15 such starts in 2001, when he struck out 372, and Boston’s Pedro Martinez had 13 in 1999, when he struck out 313.

Darvish has thrown over 110 pitches in six of his 13 starts this season, twice going past 120, and how the Rangers deploy him later in the season may be the deciding factor in whether or not he reaches 300 strikeouts.

“I think 300 is very difficult for anyone,” Valentine said. “Because to do that, you have to throw so often and throw so many pitches. If everyone is wise, he’ll get a little break in the middle of the season where maybe he can miss a start.”

Darvish’s climb to 300 will be an interesting story line to watch this season. If nothing else, he’s proving last year’s 16-win, 221-strikeout season was no fluke.

“I think last year was just a learning process for him,” Valentine said. “It’s not that the league is going to learn about him, he’s going to learn about the league. If he stays healthy, he’ll continue to excel.

“His pitches baffle hitters. They don’t know what they’re seeing. I think he’ll just continue to figure out something new to do if what he’s doing now isn’t successful.”

Editor’s note: the video at the top of this webpage is of the GIF created by Drew Sheppard (@DShep25 on Twitter).