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What Makes Yu Darvish Such a Dominant Strikeout Pitcher?

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What Makes Yu Darvish Such a Dominant Strikeout Pitcher?

Yu Darvish has taken Major League Baseball by storm in his second season. At this point, he has arguably become the most dominant pitcher in the game.

The Japanese import has only been pitching since 2012, but during that time he has made opponents look silly at the plate.

Darvish put up another masterful performance on Monday afternoon against the Houston Astros, setting a new career-high in strikeouts with 15. He had a no-hitter going through seven innings, only to be broken up by a Carlos Corporan home run in the bottom of the eighth.

This isn't the first time Darvish just missed a no-hitter this season, as he lost a perfect game to these same Astros in the ninth inning with two outs in his first start of the season.

The story of Darvish's season hasn't just been about no-hit bids, though, as he's also been the best strikeout pitcher in baseball, with today being his fifth 14-strikeout game of 2013.

The most shocking stat concerning Darvish is that he's only 26 years old (turns 27 this week). He combines the maturity level of a veteran with an arsenal of nasty pitches that very few pitchers boast.

Darvish's insane combination of youth, maturity and talent have put him in elite company in terms of strikeouts.

Darvish has put himself in line to compete for the AL Cy Young award this year, but the real question is how he went from a pitcher with a 3.90 ERA last season to one of the best in the game in 2013.

 

The Repertoire

Harry How/Getty Images

According to FanGraphs.com, Darvish has thrown seven different types of pitches this season—a fastball, a sinker, a slider, a cutter, a changeup, a splitter and a curveball.

However, like most other pitchers, Darvish's dominance starts with his fastball. He can throw the same pitch in a variety of ways, and his velocity is always changing. He has thrown the fastball as slow as 85.7 mph this season, and has been able to rev it up as high as 97.7 mph.

Usually a 12 mph difference in fastball speeds indicates that there is a problem because it shows that the pitcher is inconsistent. However, Darvish intentionally changes speeds to make it more difficult for batters to make solid contact.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After setting opponents up with his fastball, Darvish can counter with some filthy offspeed pitches.

He has a slider that is next to unhittable. According to FanGraphs.com, opponents are batting a measly .140 this season when Darvish throws his slider.

Darvish's slider could be one of the keys to his success this season as he has relied on it much more this year. Whereas last year he threw the pitch 592 times compared to 996 fastballs, this year he's thrown it 889 times as opposed to 632 fastballs.

 

Getting Opponents to Miss

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It's tough to be a great strikeout pitcher without getting batters to swing and miss, and Darvish is one of the best in the game in that respect.

This table from ShutDownInning.com breaks down the numbers:

Photo Courtesy ShutDownInning.com

Darvish gets batters to whiff on 10.3 percent of his pitches, while recording 30.1 percent of those swing-and-misses on pitches out of the zone. What's even more incredible is that 54 percent of those swinging strikes came on strike three.

Darvish has proven that he can get ahead in the count by throwing strikes that batters don't even bother to swing at. When he gets ahead in the count, though, the batters get jumpy, which is why they are swinging at balls out of the zone later in the count. 

It's tough enough to hit Darvish's pitches when they're in the zone, but when batters are swinging at balls as opposed to strikes it makes it next to impossible reach base consistently against the Texas ace.

 

Painting the Corners

Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

While getting batters to swing and miss is a big reason why Darvish is so dominant, he has proven that when he hits the corners of the zone it doesn't matter whether opponents swing or not.

As you can see from this graphic from BaseballAnalytics.org, Darvish only gets hit hard when he leaves pitches over the plate that opponents can extend their arms on. However, when he is painting the corners of the zone, batters usually make harmless contact and are retired with ease.

Photo Courtesy BaseballAnalytics.org

Darvish doesn't have great the greatest control yet, which is illustrated by his 4.06 K/BB ratio. However, he paints corners well, and when he hits them consistently he's untouchable.

If he can improve his control over the next few seasons we could see Darvish get even better in the relatively near future.

 

Getting Out of Jams

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The most important aspect of a strikeout is not that it retires a batter, but that it can quickly end a run-scoring opportunity.

When an opponent has runners on base the best thing they can do is put the ball in play. Whether they advance the runners or just put pressure on the defense, opponents who put the ball in play with runners on score runs.

That doesn't happen against Darvish.

USA TODAY Sports

The Japanese ace is at his best with runners on, and this season he's been absolutely stingey in that regard.

As ShutDownInning.com tells us, opponents bat .293 with the bases empty against Darvish, but a pathetic .187 with runners on.

A big reason why Darvish doesn't give up runs is because he records so many strikeouts with runners on base.

 

Putting It All Together

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

We've talked about what makes Darvish so special; now it's time to show how he uses his tools to his advantage.

Darvish changes speeds and eye levels, counters his fastball with his curve and sinker, and gets batters to continually guess at where his pitches are going. What's more, he knows his opponents well.

Take this game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, for instance.

Darvish throws breaking pitches that appear to be in the zone before dropping out, whereas he uses fastballs to finish off hitters by setting them up with offspeed stuff earlier in the count.

Sliders that are low and away, curveballs in the dirt and elevated fastballs are his favorite strikeout pitches, and he uses them well.

Next, check out this game against the Boston Red Sox.

Darvish strikes out 14 batters by using his full arsenal of pitches.

His curve has great break, he consistently throws it down in the zone so that Boston batters are forced to swing at balls that end up in the dirt.

Darvish's two-seamer runs away from left handed hitters, preceding it with low breaking balls that leaves hitters with no chance in the at-bat.

Finally, let's look at his performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks on August 1.

Darvish gets ahead early and has batters guessing by the end of the at-bat.

He's is in complete control in this game, which is why he tied a previous career-high with this performance.

Perhaps this explanation of Darvish will make his dominance a little more understandable. While I won't dismiss the theory that he is not from this planet without clear proof, it's at least possible that he is, in fact, human.

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