Should Yu Darvish Change His Arsenal of Pitches?

By Peter Ellwood

There were a few common storylines that came in the wake of Yu Darvish when he was posted this offseason and subsequently signed by the Texas Rangers: He’s not another Dice-K, he’s 6’5”, he’s half-Iranian, he’s getting divorced to a Japanese actress, he has been photographed in some uncomfortable underwear photos, et cetera. In the offseason, there are lots of things that aren’t stories that get made into stories. One Darvish-related bullet point that was actually a story was the wide variety of pitches the former Nippon Ham star threw. There was quite a bit of speculation over whether Darvish could maintain such an arsenal while pitching in Major League Baseball, or if he’d have to narrow it down. After over half a season, it may be a good time to re-examine that conversation.

Reports came early of Darvish’s expansive pitch options in Spring Training, varying from seven to eleven possible pitches. So far, it appears we have seen a total of eight in 2012. He has thrown a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, cut fastball, slider, splitter, hard curveball, slow curveball, and change-up. That isn’t eleven, but still, it’s eight! Most MLB pitchers are considered diverse if they can throw four or five quality pitches. According to the PitchF/X counts, here is the breakdown of the frequency with which Darvish has thrown these pitches (the two types of curves get lumped into one here):

Four-seam: 30%

Two-seam: 21%

Slider: 16%

Curveball: 14%

Cutter: 13%

Change-up: 4%

Splitter: 2%

If you lump the four-seam, two-seam, and cutter together, Darvish has thrown 64% fastballs, 30% breaking balls (slider plus curve), and 6% off-speed (change-up plus splitter). Darvish has mostly thrown six pitches, if you count the two types of curveballs. Compared to the rumors of his arsenal, six pitches seems to already be a minimized version of his potential arsenal.

However, there is room for Darvish to do further pruning of his pitch selection. The frequency with which he throws his pitches does not align to their effectiveness. Below are the strike rates and whiff rates for each of Darvish’s pitches:

Splitter: 71% strikes; 17% whiffs.

Cutter: 67%; 13%.

Two-seam: 64%; 9%.

Slider: 63%; 21%.

Curveball: 60%; 16%.

Four-seam: 58%; 8%.

Change-up: 51%; 10%.

One of the main issues that has prevented Yu Darvish from having the kind of breakout rookie season that many expected are the exorbitant amount of walks that he has issued. He has the second-highest BB/9 ratio in the American League at 4.88. In his start against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night, he walked one batter for just the second time in 23 starts. He has never made it through a start without issuing one free pass.

The main driver for the high walk totals, and when hitters have the most success against Darvish has been when he struggles to command his fastball for strikes. Yet, looking at the data, he does not struggle throwing his two-seam and cut fastball for strikes, only the four-seam. The issue is that he throws the four-seam fastball nearly as much as the other two, combined. There are two possible benefits for Darvish if he throws his two-seam and cut fastball more often: first, it appears he ought to be able to throw more strikes and establish his fastball; and second, two-seam and cut fastballs help keep pitch counts low, as they are intended to produce weak contact that can be more expediently turned into outs.

Looking at his breaking pitches, Darvish’s slider has clearly been the more effective pitch against MLB hitters. His curveball typically works best as a change of pace pitch, not as an out pitch. It is simply too soft and lacks enough sharp break to generate consistent swings-and-misses. The slider, on the other hand, has made plenty of batters both right- and left-handed look foolish this season. Nevertheless, Darvish throws the two pitches with approximately the same frequency. It wouldn’t be prudent to completely abandon the curveball, as that would leave Darvish as an exclusively high-velocity pitcher, with everything he threw falling in the 87-94 MPH range. The curveball is useful to change a hitter’s eye level and timing, but perhaps shouldn’t be offered quite as frequently as it has been thus far in the season.

Beyond what the data tells us, common sense would suggest that if Darvish would hone his focus on two fewer pitches, he ought to be able to control and command those pitches more effectively. He doesn’t need to concern himself with throwing his change-up or splitter. Those are the kinds of pitches that could be worked into his repertoire in the offseason, if desired. For now, his focus should be on how he can best execute on the mound.

It may be too simplistic to suggest that Darvish would reduce his walk rate and improve his overall results by simply throwing more two-seam fastballs, cutters, and sliders, and reducing the number of fastballs and curveballs. There is far more that goes into these decisions, such as the match-ups, Darvish’s comfort level with each pitch, and the infinite number of variables that can impact how many fingers a catcher flashes to a pitcher. As time progresses, I believe Darvish’s current arsenal will be tweaked in one way or another. To speak metaphorically, Darvish’s arsenal is like a wild stallion that needs to be tamed, and whose energy needs to be focused on one goal. If it is allowed to run wild, it may never reach its full potential.

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