Why Japanese Phenom Yu Darvish Has Still Not Peaked Yet in MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 12, 2014

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Yu Darvish posted a 2.83 ERA in 2013. Also an MLB-high 277 strikeouts and a 32.9 K%, the highest for a starter since Randy Johnson in 2001. Darvish was also 10th in MLB in FanGraphs WAR.

Point being: Darvish is already really good. Like, really good. Certainly one of the best pitchers in the game, which is no small compliment these days.

But believe me when I tell you that it is with my serious face that I say this: Darvish can be even better.

As brilliant as the Japan native was in his sophomore MLB season, I got the sense that he was still partially in an experimental phase. The 2014 season could see him take the next step, which is something he can do by taking three mini-steps that we know he can take.

First up, appropriately, is...

First-Pitch Strikes: The Way to Go Is Up

Probably the easiest suggestion to make is that Darvish should just walk fewer guys. Per FanGraphs, his BB% only fell from 10.9 in 2012 to 9.5 in 2013, easily below average among his fellow starters.

The thought did cross my mind to write something like "Thou Shalt Not Walk So Many Dudes!" But I'm going to focus on something that A) is more specific and B) Darvish has demonstrated he's capable of.

Here's the thing on my mind: first-pitch strikes. Darvish isn't great at getting them, as we see here with more FanGraphs data:

Yu Darvish vs. MLB Starters: First-Pitch Strikes
SeasonDarvishMLB Starters

Darvish isn't that far below average when it comes to throwing first-pitch strikes, but he is below average. That, obviously, is not an ideal place to be.

You probably already know about the inherent advantage of getting ahead in the count. If a pitcher gets strike one, he puts the batter on the defensive and stands a better chance of getting him out. Since Darvish is already really good while being subpar at getting first-pitch strikes, you can imagine how good he might be if he was better at it.

Actually, you don't have to imagine. Here's this:

Yu Darvish's 2013 Monthly Splits

Darvish was at his best getting ahead last April, and he was just...superb. Look at those numbers. LOOK. AT. THEM.

Now, sure, it has to be said that Darvish faced some weak competition last April. After his near-perfecto against the Houston Astros in his 2013 debut, he faced the Seattle Mariners twice and the Chicago White Sox once. That's four out of six starts against "bleh" competition.

But there is also the reality that, like all pitchers, Darvish really is that much harder to beat when he's getting ahead of more and more hitters. In fact, it's astounding how much harder to hit he is when he goes up 0-1 instead of going down 1-0.

Here are his career splits:

Yu Darvish Count Splits, 2012-2013
After 1-069922.918.3.228.375.371.746
After 0-181441.

Those 0-1 numbers could be worse, but what isn't so great is that a hitter who has gotten ahead in the count against Darvish has almost had as good a shot at a walk as a strikeout.

But if Darvish gets ahead? Based on those numbers, he might as well be forgoing the rest of the at-bat and bashing hitters to smithereens with Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. He'd be saving himself some time, and the outcome would be the same.

So it's like this: If Darvish can get back to what he was doing last April, he'll be getting first-pitch strikes more often than the average starter. And in his case, more first-pitch strikes means more opportunities to drop the hammer.

And Darvish should be able to get back to what he was doing last April. It's not like he was being gifted with a whole bunch of whiffs on offspeed stuff. According to Brooks Baseball, close to 70 percent of his first-pitch offerings were either four-seamers, sinkers or cutters. You know, typical first-pitch pitches.

Darvish will be deadly enough if he gets more first-pitch strikes in 2014. But if he tackles this next thing...

Killing Lefties More Softly: The Curveball > The Slider

Darvish isn't weak against left-handed batters. He held them to a .674 OPS in 2012, and a .655 OPS in 2013. The MLB average for left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers was over .740 both years. 

And yet, there's room for improvement here, and Darvish might achieve said improvement if he goes back to doing something he was doing in 2012: primarily using his curveball to finish off lefties.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here's a look at Darvish's favorite weapons against righty and lefty hitters with two strikes in his first two seasons:

Yu Darvish's Put-Away Pitches
YearSplitPitchUsage (%)Whiff %AVGISO
2012vs. RHBSlider30.426.4.015.015
2012vs. LHBCurve25.732.5.083.050
2013vs. RHBSlider53.527.9.100.017
2013vs. LHBSlider34.624.8.117.063
2013vs. LHBCurve22.329.4.029.029
Brooks Baseball

The first observation you might make: Goodness gracias dat slider!

It's a good one, all right, and Darvish had the right idea in breaking it out more than half the time against righty hitters when he had two strikes on them in 2013. 

But against lefty hitters? Maybe not.

Forget the slider, Yu. Give 'em the curveball...
Forget the slider, Yu. Give 'em the curveball...Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Some necessary background information is that Darvish's curveball wasn't his default pitch in two-strike counts against lefties in 2012 by much, as he also used his four-seamer, sinker, cutter, splitter and, yes, his slider better than 10 percent of the time in such situations. But when he did use the curve, it clearly got the job done.

It was the same story in 2013, except he wasn't using it as much because it took a back seat to his slider. It got fine results, to be sure, but not as fine as the results his curveball was getting.

Why did Darvish downplay his hook in favor of his slider in these situations? I figure it was mainly because he was going to his slider more often in general. Somewhere along the line, he must have convinced himself that its nastiness makes it a good go-to pitch in any situation.

He's not necessarily wrong, if that's what he's thinking. He's just not 100 percent right either. The numbers say his curveball is the way to go against lefties when he has them on the edge. If he makes that his go-to pitch in those situations once again, he could find his easy-out percentage (not a real thing, but you know) increasing.

And now on to Thing 3...

Keeping the Ball in the Yard: Why Not Trust the Sinker More Often?

Imagine Bronson Arroyo with much better stuff and inferior command, and you basically have Darvish.

Which is to say: He's not immune to the long ball.

Home runs didn't kill Darvish in 2012, as he gave up only 14 and had a solid 9.1 HR/FB rate. But in 2013, he gave up 26 homers on a 14.4 HR/FB rate. Globe Life Park in Arlington wasn't to blame, as FanGraphs' splits show that Darvish had an 11.7 HR/FB at home and an 18.8 HR/FB on the road.

The real culprit? Mainly his four-seam fastball.

We're going to look at two tables separately. This one contains data from Brooks Baseball for the FB/BIP (fly balls per balls in play) rates of his pitches, minus his little-used slow curveball: 

Yu Darvish's Pitches and FB/BIP
Brooks Baseball

It's been Darvish's four-seamer that's been serving up the bulk of the fly balls he's allowed in his first two seasons. It's this same pitch that's been hit out of the yard most often:

Yu Darvish's Pitches and Home Runs
Brooks Baseball

Now, this makes sense. Darvish has a four-seamer with good movement and velocity, but four-seamers do tend to be easier to elevate. The only way Darvish is going to stop surrendering homers on his four-seamer is if he stops throwing it.

I don't want to suggest he should do that...but maybe throwing it less often is a good idea.

It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Darvish to go back to something he was doing in 2012. That would be using his four-seamer and sinker in more equal tandem with one another:

Yu Darvish's Heat
YearPitchUsage (%)GB/BIPAVGISO
Brooks Baseball

Darvish's sinker wasn't a primary offering in 2012, but it wasn't nearly the secondary offering that it was in 2013. And while the .230 ISO hitters racked up against Darvish's sinker says that he was in the right in downplaying it, the strong GB/BIP rate it still had and the overall average against it say otherwise.

Darvish's sinker doesn't need to supplant his four-seamer as his primary fastball. His four-seamer isn't bad enough to the point where it needs to go the way of Francisco Liriano's four-seamer. But if Darvish dusts off his sinker more often than he did in 2013 this coming season, he ought to be able to rack up a few more ground balls and, by extension, keep a few balls from going over the fence.

The Summary Portion of Our Program

To reiterate, Darvish is super-duper good, but he could get better if he:

  1. Throws more first-pitch strikes
  2. Gets back to using his curve as his primary put-away pitch against lefties
  3. Gets back to trusting his sinker

And that's it, really. I'm not asking a lot, nor am I asking Darvish to do anything he's incapable of doing. These are things he can do. He just needs to do them more.

What's Darvish's ceiling if he does these three things?

Well, it's hard to say exactly. But since he'd be putting more hitters on the defensive, slaying more lefty hitters and keeping more balls in the yard, I'd say three things are legitimately possible.

300 strikeouts. The American League Cy Young. World domination.

And not necessarily in that order.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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