April 12, 2012
Monday night in Arlington featured the most anticipated pitching appearance of 2012, with Yu Darvish taking the mound in his stateside debut against the Seattle Mariners. The right-hander came to Texas preceded by a $111 million price tag, scouting reports that told of a seven-pitch arsenal, and a reputation as Japan's greatest pitcher. The Rangers held him back until the fourth game of the season, unveiling their hired gun at home against a light-hitting Mariners club that just happens to have a legion of Japanese fans, cranking up the media hype for Darvish's first start.
Darvish wore the stoic mask of a Man with No Name as he took the mound, though he must have been saturated with adrenaline once he toed the rubber. He walked leadoff batter Chone Figgins on four consecutive pitches, the last three of which missed badly outside the zone as his throwing arm failed to catch up to the rest of his body. Darvish came back to strike out Dustin Ackley on a nasty slider, surviving a seven-pitch battle and setting up the ultimate face-off of Japan's legends, with Ichiro striding to the plate to face the phenom. Darvish took the opportunity to show off multiple variations of his fastball, chucking six consecutive heaters that ranged from 92-96 mph with assorted levels of sink, cut, and run through the zone.
Darvish was generally on target in the Ichiro at-bat, with fastballs coming within inches of catcher Mike Napoli's glove before Ichiro blooped the last one into left field for a single. The rest of the frame was a clinic demonstrating how a lack of mechanical consistency can turn an ace into a headcase. Darvish's failure to harness his motion led to a cat-and-mouse game between his pitches and Napoli's targets, and the inning quickly snowballed in Seattle's favor, leading to the low point of a four-pitch walk that Darvish gifted to Munenori Kawasaki with the bases loaded. The only reprieve came against no. 8 hitter Brendan Ryan (one of just two right-handed batters in the starting lineup), when something clicked and Darvish hooked up three consecutive deliveries to send Ryan back to the dugout, finishing him off with a filthy fastball-slider combination. The 42-pitch nightmare mercifully ended with the bases left loaded and the home team trailing by four runs.
Nearly all of Darvish's missed targets were the result of faulty timing. He repeatedly waited too long after foot strike to initiate trunk rotation, preventing his arm from reaching full extension at release point and generating pitches that trailed high to the arm-side. Darvish would then overcompensate with an early trigger, resulting in over-rotation of the shoulder axis and producing dirty baseballs. There were instances where Darvish lined up his delivery and painted Napoli's target without budging the glove, with the difference between a well-timed delivery and one that was off-kilter coming down to hundredths of a second.
The second and third innings were much like the first, with Darvish failing to find his release point and continually adjusting the timing of his trunk rotation. Brendan Ryan's second at-bat was a case in point, as the first-inning strikeout casualty was drilled in the back by a severely under-rotated fastball. Darvish held the damage to a single run in the second inning and escaped unscathed in the third, though a persistent inability to hit Napoli's targets caused the catcher to adjust his approach as the game wore on.
The popular narrative suggests that Darvish calmed down after the third inning, finding his delivery to shut down 10 straight Mariners and keep Seattle off the board while Texas mounted a comeback. The harsher reality is that the consistency issues plagued the right-hander throughout the game, with Darvish battling to find his release point to the extent that Napoli felt safe setting up the mitt in only two locations: under the zone for sliders and middle-away for fastballs to left-handed batters. Some of the well-timed deliveries still resulted in hittable pitches due to Napoli's generous targets, with a couple hard-hit balls that were a consequence of setup location as much as pitch execution, including a pitch to Kyle Seager in the fourth that was well-struck yet fortunate to find outfield leather.
Darvish relied mostly on his fastball variations and a sharp slider to keep hitters off-balance, though he mixed in a slow looping curveball in the 65-75-mph range after the first trip through the lineup. There was no semblance of an off-speed pitch in his repertoire on Monday, though the multiple fastball-breaking ball manipulations could qualify as a half-dozen unique offerings, confusing batters and putting PITCHf/x on tilt. The most consistent deliveries came on 82-85 mph sliders, and the majority of Darvish’s timing mistakes involved under-rotated fastballs.
Timing issues aside, the mechanical components of Darvish’s delivery are tight as a drum. He has excellent balance and absolutely ideal posture, providing the foundation for repeatable mechanics once he finds his time signature. Darvish is very slow into maximum leg lift when pitching from the windup, including an inconsistent pause as he brings his hands over his head, though he shifts into a solid second gear after max leg lift. The momentum is more impressive from the stretch, where Darvish eschewed the slide step even with a base-burner on first and two outs on the board. He displayed flashes of strong torque, though his hip-shoulder separation fluctuated based on the trigger-timing of his shoulders. The arm speed is electric when all of the gears are cranking in unison. Darvish directs his energy straight at the target and finishes with linear momentum flowing toward the plate, though the ferocity of rotation can cause the right-hander to spin off to the glove side.
Mechanics Report Card
The grades specifically reflect Monday's performance, though the top five scores provide baselines that should be relatively persistent. The repetition grade is likely to fluctuate from game to game, and it is worth noting that Darvish displayed a more stable time signature near the end of spring training. Repetition of timing is the single greatest determinant of successful pitch execution, with the Darvish performance demonstrating how a pitcher's success can boil down to just hundredths of a second. The torque grade would be higher if Darvish could find max hip-shoulder separation with more consistency, and the score for momentum would gain a tick if we juged the delivery solely from the stretch.
Darvish’s steady balance and perfect posture provide a rare template to isolate timing issues when evaluating pitch command. Most pitchers miss their targets due to a combination of inefficient balance, posture, and repetition, but Darvish excels in the first two categories, thus revealing a solitary reason behind the majority of his struggles. There exist certain mechanical variables that have a functional ceiling, and though it may be rare to find an 80 posture, the absolute nature of the grade means that there will be more examples than stats class would dictate for a normal distribution. Of course, our distribution is anything but normal; we are swimming through a sea of right-tailed data points, particularly when diagnosing the top pitchers in the game.
Darvish has one of the best mechanical profiles in baseball, yet some analysts are concluding from Monday’s game that he will rack up high pitch counts throughout the season. He had a very low walk rate in Japan, and his mechanical baseline foretells excellent command, leaving me bullish about Darvish's future despite a critical review of his first appearance. He has all of the ingredients to be a dominant force in the majors and could find a groove in short order. The only thing stopping Darvish from reaching his ceiling is the fine-tuning of his rotational timing.