Breaking Down Darvish

After watching Yu Darvish for more than a month in spring training, Lone Star Dugout's Jason Cole breaks down the right-hander's game on the mound––along with his dazzling seven-pitch arsenal––going into Monday's big league debut against the Seattle Mariners.

On Monday evening all eyes in the baseball world will be on right-hander Yu Darvish as he makes his first-career major league start against the Seattle Mariners. The scene provides an excellent narrative, with Darvish presumably facing Ichiro Suzuki.

But with all of his successes in Japan, the $111-million man is still something of a mystery in the United States––even after a strong spring training performance in which he struck out 21 batters in 15 innings.

I was lucky enough to see all but one of Darvish's outings during camp, both the back-field scrimmages and ‘A' major league games this spring. What follows are my observations on what to expect from Darvish, along with a breakdown of his stuff.

Darvish technically has seven pitches––if you include the three different types of fastballs that he'll throw. But most starting pitchers throw both a four- and two-seam fastball, and many also throw a cutter. However, Darvish also has a slider, two different curveballs, a changeup, and a splitter. What makes Darvish unique is that practically all of his pitches are effective. Most of them can miss bats, and at one time or another during camp he went to all seven of them in a two-strike situation to chase the punchout.

The 25-year-old typically doesn't fool around with all seven pitches at once. Although he made an attempt to mix as many offerings as possible into some of his early-spring outings, he began working off his fastball more often in each start as camp progressed. His fastball, in general, will sit in the 92-94 mph range, getting down to 89-91 (two-seam) and up to 95-97 (presumably four-seam, though all of his fastballs have good life).

While the level of play in Japan is solid, it's a different league with a different brand of baseball. The hitters tend to be more free-swinging than in the States, and while they make lots of contact, they generally hit for less power. Because of this, Darvish's fastball command was something worth monitoring this spring. It has improved with just about every spring outing, though, and he clearly knows how to pitch and sequence his repertoire.

One slight (and common) misconception about Darvish is that, because he has such a deep repertoire, he's got too much to work with. As mentioned earlier, he doesn't try to work in all of his pitches at once. At times during camp, the hurler appeared to be fiddling around and trying a little of everything. This was especially true in his first spring start against San Diego, when he managed to work in all seven of his offerings during a two-inning appearance.

Since that outing, Darvish has done a better job of living off his two-seam fastball and putting hitters away with the plus breaking stuff. He'll also catch hitters off-balance on occasion, throwing his fastball to the outside corner while they look for the curve or slider in an offspeed count.

Though Darvish's command wasn't perfect in camp (it certainly wasn't bad by spring training standards, either), he didn't appear to be nibbling. Perhaps most impressively, the two-time NPB MVP didn't really have any prolonged spells of command loss. If he wasn't locating to a hitter, he was often able to lock in with the next hitter. Darvish showed signs of mental maturity, but that should be no shock given his experience level coming into Major League Baseball.

To top it off, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound righty is an excellent athlete who fields his position well and moves around quickly. He appears to repeat his mechanics with consistency, and he seems to know his body and limitations well. After working solely from the stretch at times early in the spring––all the while working on his windup in side sessions––he began pitching from the windup during his last few outings. Despite his tall frame, Darvish employs sort of a drop-and-drive delivery, though he still manages to work on a downward plane with his already lively fastball. His lightning-fast arm helps generate both velocity and movement on all his pitches.

When Darvish has issues, it's likely to come down to fastball command and perhaps being too fine around the strike zone. Scouts and reporters who covered Darvish in Japan say that his command was good. He walked only 36 batters (with 276 strikeouts) in 232 innings with Nippon Ham last season. One Japan-based writer said that Darvish is like Daisuke Matsuzaka in that he's a bit of a perfectionist. But he was quick to add that Darvish has never nibbled around the strike zone nearly as much as Matsuzaka.

All signs point to Darvish being the potential top-of-the-rotation arm that the Rangers will possibly need if they're to make another World Series run in 2012. The stuff is there. His command is already good and appears to be improving. The pitchability is there. At the very least, there's no doubt that Darvish has all the tools for success, and that's why the Rangers gave him a six-year, $60 million contract on top of the posting fee to Nippon Ham.

If the Osaka native commands his fastball and gets ahead in counts consistently, there's no reason that Darvish can't be a monster who gobbles innings and strikeouts along the way. He's got a deep repertoire and can miss bats with all of his pitches.

Here's a closer look at the right-hander's entire arsenal:

Four-seam fastball: It can be hard to differentiate Darvish's four-seamer from a two-seamer at times because he gets so much natural life on everything he throws. He can also throw his two-seam quite hard. Darvish touched 97 mph in spring training and got into the 95-96 mph range a handful of times per start. While he often sat in the mid-90s during the first inning of his late-spring starts, he typically settled in between 89-94, going to the higher velocity when needed in the later innings. As mentioned, Darvish's fastball location improved slightly with each spring start.

Two-seam fastball: The two-seam fastball appears to be the pitch Darvish throws most often. It sits anywhere between 89-94 mph with tons of armside run and some sink away from right-handed hitters. Darvish depended on the two-seamer (basically a hard sinker) even more late in the spring. It's a pitch that can miss bats because of the movement. But more importantly, it can help keep his pitch count down––if he locates it––by inducing early-count swings and ground balls.

Cut fastball: During spring training, Darvish used his 89-91 mph cutter mostly against left-handed hitters. It's a pitch designed to get in on the hands of lefties. His location of the offering will be important if he's going to have success against southpaws. Darvish gave up a couple hits to Rockies lefties in his final Cactus League start when he wasn't able to get the cutter inside enough. But in general, it's an offering with late movement that should allow him to miss barrels. He'll also mix in an occasional righty-righty cutter.

Slider: In his late-spring starts, Darvish generally used both the slider and curveball early before ultimately deciding which to use as his primary put-away pitch later in the game. But the truth is that both pitches are well above-average (borderline plus-plus) and can miss lots of bats. When his 82-86 mph slider is on, it's a wipeout pitch and probably his best secondary offering. The slider has late, violently sharp bite away from right-handed hitters with long break and good tilt.

Curveball: Darvish got strikeouts with his slider in spring training, but he seemed to prefer his 77-81 mph curveball in two-strike situations later in camp. That probably doesn't mean much––Darvish will use both pitches as put-away offerings. He may go to the slider more often in one start while using the hard curve more in the next. Also well above-average and a borderline 70-grade pitch, Darvish's curve has two-plane break with good depth, and he located it very well this spring to both left- and right-handed batters.

Slow curveball: Darvish threw his slower curve anywhere between 63-71 mph this spring. It's a get-me-over pitch for the most part, used to steal a strike early in the count. He won't throw the slow curve in mid-sequence very often, though he did strike out Troy Tulowitzki with it during his final Cactus League start. He'll likely mix in the slow curve four or five times per outing, using it early in the count when hitters are bracing for a mid-90s fastball. It's not as loopy as most extremely slow curves, but it's also not going to be a put-away pitch.

Changeup: He'll throw an occasional changeup––mostly to left-handed hitters––but hasn't been using it as often as the cutter and breaking balls. Given his well above-average fastball and breaking stuff, Darvish should have little trouble handling right-handed batters. But if he showed a potential weakness in spring training, it's that lefties appeared to see the ball a little better than righties. He might have to use the 85-86 mph change––about an average pitch, if not a slight tick above, with some fading action––a little more as the season moves forward.

Splitter: The upper-80s splitter was Darvish's least-used pitch during camp, and that'll probably be the case during the regular season. He threw it a few times early in the spring but didn't seem to use it much later in camp. The pitch has sharp drop with even a little cut on it and is good enough to induce swinging strikes, but it doesn't figure to be a significant factor in his arsenal this year.

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