Earlier this week, Bleacher Report had an exclusive opportunity to speak with former major league pitcher and current broadcaster Ron Darling.
Aside from Darling's work with SNY and TBS, the former 13-year pitching veteran shares his insight as part of MLB Network's team. Darling will be part of MLB Network’s Spring Training series 30 Clubs in 30 Days, which returns this Friday during MLB Tonight at 8 p.m. ET. Darling will report from the Nationals, Mets, Cardinals, Marlins, Orioles and Rays camps in March.
I had the opportunity to represent Bleacher Report in a wide-ranging conversation with Darling that touched on Masahiro Tanaka's jump to America, Clayton Kershaw's dominance and how he would handle Matt Harvey's rehab and potential comeback in 2014.
B/R: What have been your first impressions of Masahiro Tanaka?
Darling: I've talked to a few scouts and baseball people in Tampa thus far. From what I've been told and seen on tape, he's bigger and stronger than I initially expected. The breaking stuff is sharp, as advertised. You can see the talent is there. Expect a big year from him.
B/R: What aspect of the jump to Major League Baseball do you expect Tanaka to struggle with early in his career?
Darling: The test will be how he performs on days when his best stuff isn't there. Major League Baseball is the best league in the world, full of capable hitters up and down every single lineup. He'll need to battle and get through those starts without his best arsenal. If he's behind in the count, his devastating splitter may not be as successful.
B/R: How would you compare Derek Jeter's impending farewell tour to what we witnessed with Mariano Rivera last summer?
Darling: It's hard to believe, but it will be bigger than Rivera. Clearly, Mariano is beloved by fans and fellow players, but Jeter is an even bigger deal. The face of baseball is leaving.
B/R: What are your expectations for the 2014 Yankees?
Darling: I don't see as many question marks as some. They are an improved team from the group that won 85 games last season. Will they miss Robinson Cano? Of course. It's not going to be easy to replace one of the best players in the game, but Ellsbury, Beltran and McCann is a good way to start. I expect them to be in the postseason.
B/R: We're in the midst of a great time for pitching dominance. Who are your favorite young pitchers in the game?
Darling: Six starters jump out: Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale.
Harvey has been a pleasure to watch here in New York. Hernandez is so accomplished at such a young age (27) and juncture of his career. I think Strasburg, a few years removed from surgery and building back his strength, is poised for a huge year. Sale is so electric that a no-hitter is possible every time he toes the rubber.
As for relievers, time stands still when Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel enter the game. Their ability to light up the radar gun and neutralize opposing hitters is amazing to watch.
B/R: What makes Clayton Kershaw so great?
Darling: Well, it's a combination of things. Of course, it starts with talent. The ability and stuff is as good as anyone in baseball, but certain things separate Kershaw from other excellent arms.
He's stingy. If the Dodgers are up 10-0, Kershaw still hates to give in and surrender even one run.
His work ethic. Last October, I had the chance to work some of the Dodgers' postseason games for TBS and observe the team up close. Kershaw was running laps—miles worth—around the outfield track less than a full day after a grueling start.
He's a born leader and feels the responsibility of being an ace.
B/R: Does he remind you of any greats of the past, either physically or from a pitching perspective?
Darling: No one throws exactly like him, but two names stand out: Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson.
Koufax because of the offerings. When both had their fastball and curveball working on the same day, dominance followed.
Johnson because he was the last left-handed pitcher to go on a run like Kershaw is on now. Clearly, they are different in stature and build, but the intimidation factor is there.
B/R: Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have dominated the AL MVP conversation for the past two years. How would you have pitched to each?
Darling: I faced some great hitters during my time. From Schmidt to Rose to Gwynn, it was a challenge in the National League at that time. I'd put these two up there with those stars.
Trout is so young and so talented. There's not a flaw in his offensive game. The ability to beat you with power and speed is so rare. In a way, he's Jose Canseco 2.0. Say what you want about how Canseco achieved his stardom, but the numbers—140 HR and 91 SB from 1988-1991—counted.
Cabrera is impossible to get out. While his plate coverage and power are outstanding, it's Cabrera's intelligence that isn't talked about enough. His pitch recognition and recall isn't just good, it's very rare and special. If you use the same sequence twice—in a certain game or inning situation—he'll remember and punish you. You can't go after him the same way twice.
B/R: Matt Harvey has expressed interest in returning this season. If he's medically cleared, would you let him pitch?
Darling: If I were the GM, I would dangle that opportunity in front of him. Rehab is hard. It takes you away from the day-to-day love of the game. I had six surgeries and each rehab was unique and different. Sometimes, just the idea of coming back early and helping the team can get you through those days.
Look, two things have to happen to make it worthwhile for both Harvey and the Mets. First, he has to be healthy and ready. Second, the Mets have to be involved in meaningful baseball. If both those things happen, I wouldn't stop him from returning and doing his job on the mound.
B/R: Should there be a standard protocol teams follow with young arms?
Darling: There's nothing wrong with protocol, but there needs to be a standard deviation. Basically, you can't treat everyone the same. When an outlier emerges, teams need to break from the protocol and do what's best for the individual, not the system or structure previously put forth.
Look, if Tom Seaver was drafted last year, he wouldn't pitch complete games or rack up nearly 5,000 career innings. His arm was different. Teams need to identify which arms are different and let them perform.
I call it baseball hubris. Teams think they have the answers, but we know they don't.
There's no simple answer here. Kershaw was treated well and stayed healthy. Both Strasburg and Harvey were handled with diligence, yet injuries occurred.
B/R: CC Sabathia has stayed healthy and durable for 13 years, but his velocity and performance have dipped lately. Can he still be an ace without a top-tier fastball?
Darling: He can because of intelligence. Sabathia isn't a thrower, he's a pitcher. In fact, he's been that way for a long time, but his talent and velocity overshadowed how smart he was on the mound.
Last year, he had 14 wins in a disastrous year. For some guys, they'd give their left leg for a 14-win season.
I laugh when people ask me about CC Sabathia's decline. What did you expect?! The guy gave so many innings for so many years. He's on the cusp of 3,000 career innings. Arms aren't built to last that long at this level. Eventually, that velocity and stuff will give out.
That doesn't mean he can't adapt and perform. Mike Mussina did it. Andy Pettitte did it. CC Sabathia will do it.
When it comes to baseball, few can explain it and articulate what they mean like Ron Darling. During our conversation, Darling hit on many topics, but his perspective on pitching was fascinating.
Few analysts or writers have been outspoken about giving Matt Harvey the chance to pitch in September, but Darling thinks it's a good thing to have him strive for during the rehab process. If the Mets make a surprise run toward a postseason spot, expect comments like those to be rehashed around water coolers in New York.
From grooming young pitchers to high expectations for the Yankees, Darling was bursting with excitement for the 2014 season. Check Darling and the MLB Network crew out through February and March on 30 Clubs in 30 Days.
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