As Yu Darvish threw pitches and toyed with his grips in the bullpen at Sapporo Dome on one summer day in 2005, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitching coach Mike Brown came to a startling realization.
He’d never seen anything like this before.
Brown was a baseball man who had been around. He’d pitched in the majors for the Red Sox and Mariners, had been a bullpen coach for the Yankees and was on the Indians’ coaching staff in 2002. He then came to Japan and was Trey Hillman’s pitching coach with the Fighters. Now he was watching the team’s first pick from the 2004 draft go to work in his first session in Sapporo since being called up. Brown had seen a lot of pitchers, but Darvish was different, which is what he’d later tell Hillman.
“Mike said, ‘I’ve never seen a pitcher be able to change a grip and have the touch and feel that he has with trying different things in a bullpen session,’” Hillman recalled during a phone interview with The Japan Times. “I thought that was very telling.
“Everybody knew he was very talented, obviously. But for Mike to have said that with all the experience that Mike had at that point, I just thought that was a very telling sign about just the level of the pitcher that this young man had a chance to become.”
What Darvish became was one of the best, most fascinating pitchers in the world.
According to Brooks Baseball, he threw eight different types of pitches in 2020. He can throw fastballs that average in the mid-90s and has thrown big breaking curveballs that are sometimes comically slow. While MLB was on hiatus, he took to Twitter to debut a new pitch he called the “The Supreme.”
Darvish began putting on muscle even before leaving Japan. His hair, which has been of varying lengths, now pours out of the sides of his hat. He made it a point to learn English and does interviews without an interpreter, and on his popular YouTube channel, where he has over 530,000 subscribers, he shows himself to be intelligent, engaging, thoughtful and funny.
Baseball’s International Man of Mystery, Yu Darvish.
Above all, Darvish is a fantastic pitcher and has been from the start. From the bullpen session Brown watched that day in 2005 to last month’s playoff game when he pitched for the Cubs against the Marlins, where Hillman is currently on the coaching staff.
After a game against the Cardinals in August, Darvish was asked how his 2020 performance stacked up against other points in his career.
“Three times better than before,” Darvish responded, according to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic.
Darvish is still evolving and adapting and that’s been one of the keys to his success. Even at 34, he’s finding ways to take his game higher.
This year that included using his cutter more than ever and molding that pitch into one of the best in MLB. It helped Darvish finish 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 76 innings for the Cubs during the coronavirus-shortened MLB season. He became the first Japanese pitcher to lead either the AL or NL in wins and finished second in the voting for the NL Cy Young Award.
“I first saw Darvish when he was 19 or 20, and he was already elite,” said former Dodgers GM and Pacific Rim scout Dan Evans. “I was not at all surprised by what he accomplished in 2020. He has been dominant his entire professional career.
“Interestingly, he is still evolving and improving at age 34, using his plus-plus slider and cutter more than ever before and displaying the best four-seam fastball velocity of his career in 2020. Plus his social media game is quite good also!”
Like Hillman and Brown, those who saw Darvish early aren’t surprised to see the player he’s become.
“I know several guys had 7s and 8s on him as far as scouting grades go,” said one MLB scout. “I think the lowest anyone went was a 6.
“I don’t think his success is surprising for anyone — but everyone is proud that he was able to make the necessary adjustments to his game to continue to thrive.”
Darvish was dominant in Japan. He could throw hard, but it was also the variety and quality of his pitches that made him a nightmare to face.
In 2006, Darvish helped the Fighters win the Japan Series. He’d go on to win the Sawamura Award in 2007 and was the Pacific League MVP in 2007 and 2009.
Darvish was 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA across seven NPB seasons. He had four 200-plus strikeout seasons and finished with an ERA under 2.00 in each of his final five years.
Even in Japan he was known for the sheer variety of his pitches. With his arsenal and overwhelming velocity Darvish could simply outmatch some hitters and had the stuff to tie up the others.
“It was just that air of confidence that he had when he first came up,” Hillman said. “Even at 18 years old, he just had no fear. It was just a perception that, hey man, I’m in control and I’m going to attack the strike zone and pitch to bad contact.”
In 2011, Darvish sat on the field at Sapporo Dome in a suit as he told the fans he was heading to MLB in pursuit of a new challenge and his goal to become the No. 1 pitcher in the world.
He found success there, too.
In eight seasons with the Rangers, Dodgers and Cubs, Darvish is a four-time MLB All-Star and has been the Cy Young runner-up in both the AL and NL. In 2013, he led the AL in strikeouts.
In 2015, he had Tommy John Surgery and hit a rough patch in the 2017 World Series with the Dodgers, though that performance now has to be discussed in the context of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Darvish also struggled after moving to the Cubs in 2018, partially due to injuries.
According to a September story by ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, what helped Darvish get turned around in the second half of 2019 was another adjustment: slowing down. In the piece, Rogers quotes Darvish as saying, “I’m a slow guy. Before the guys wanted me to throw more quickly. If I’m focusing on that, I can’t focus on the next pitch. Now I focus on the next pitch.”
Hillman, who has been with the Marlins since 2019, also noticed from afar.
“At least from the outing I saw, he was just more judicious with his pitches.” Hillman said of this year’s playoff game, which the Marlins won. “He had better command of both the right and left side of the plate and he showed no fear at attacking the plate. I just had the perception this guy trusted any pitch. He shook a lot too, with a veteran catcher. He knew exactly what he wanted his gameplan to be.
Darvish had to evolve to survive the move from NPB to the majors and he’s had to keep things fresh to have lasting success.
“Well, I think the biggest thing that he had learned was, and he was very good at it this year, getting back to elite again, you gotta pitch to contact, you gotta pitch on the plate,” Hillman said. “It’s just a fear of not pitching to the edges and pitching to the bigger part of the plate, just making sure it’s a quality pitch.
“And you get a guy like Yu and he’s still got swing and miss. There are a lot of starting pitchers who are 3s, 4s and 5s, here in the United States, they don’t have, necessarily every day, swing and miss. They’ve got bad contact pitches, which is what the cutter does for you a lot.”
Darvish’s drive and constant evolution have taken him beyond the heights some thought he could reach even as he dominated Japan.
“He certainly reinvented himself over the last two years,” the MLB scout said. “And nobody can predict that. You can only hope the player takes that upon himself to adjust. I think everyone saw Darvish as a guy who was capable and willing to do that.
“Early in, he was never just a ‘thrower.’ He was always a ‘pitcher.'”
Darvish drove the point home in 2020 with his cutter and was in the thick of the Cy Young race. The only three first-place votes that didn’t go to winner Trevor Bauer went to Darvish.
“I think who he is right now is who we all expected him to be, but he’s gotten there by taking a little bit of a different path than we would’ve projected,” the scout continued.
“He’s focused his craft into a deadly three-pitch mix rather than the seven pitches he debuted with. Focused on what worked and perfected that.”
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