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April 8, 2013

Skewed Left

Beating Yu Darvish

by Zachary Levine

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Article originally published on Sunday, April 7.

The Angels get their first of perhaps a vitally important five or six shots at Yu Darvish this season on Sunday Night Baseball, and the task looks beyond intimidating.

Darvish, entering his second season in the United States, is actually throwing harder than he did last year, adding more potency to an extremely wide repertoire of pitches. That’s not to mention that he just came within one out of a perfect game in his season debut against the Astros, or that he’s coming off his first regular-season start without any walks.

While it’s probably not possible to “solve” Darvish, there is at least a way to increase your chances of avoiding looking as silly as the Astros did in going 27-up, 26-down with 14 strikeouts. However strange it seems, the Astros, amid all their hacking and flailing, may have actually uncovered the key to beating Darvish.

You have to beat him early in the count.

Because you’re absolutely not beating him late. Once Darvish gets ahead in the count, it’s the closest thing there is to “game over,” but there is a chance to get to him early in the count.

It’s exactly what Marwin Gonzalez did when he ended Darvish’s bid for perfection in the ninth inning, swinging at a first-pitch fastball and returning it right between Darvish’s legs on his 111th and final offering of the night.

For as strong a pitcher as Darvish was last year, he was actually worse than league average on plate appearances that ended on the first pitch. But if you watched that first pitch, usually a fastball, and got behind in the count even 0-1, your odds plummeted. The league’s OPS against Darvish was more than 100 points lower than against all other pitchers after an 0-1 count.

(In contrast, his Sunday Night Baseball opponent Jered Weaver yields far below league-average production on the first pitch and is a little bit more forgiving when he gets ahead in the count.)

This chart illustrates just how much worse your chances get as Darvish gets ahead, compared to the average pitcher.

Split

Yu Darvish 2012

American League 2012

All counts

.659 OPS

.728 OPS

First pitch

.959

.896

After 0-1

.503

.615

Two strikes

.366

.519

So it’s no surprise that of the 16 Astros hitters who got to two strikes in the count on Tuesday night, 14 of them met their demise by strikeout. Gonzalez, in his third plate appearance, didn’t let it get that far. Nor did any of the three hitters Darvish faced in the ninth. They saw a combined four pitches on their two groundouts and a single.

One would expect the Angels to follow a similar strategy tonight, lest they set themselves up for the most unhittable of what he has to offer. That’s the tighter of the different curveball looks to lefties and the slider to righties, both of which generate well above-average whiff rates.

As you can see from these charts, Darvish’s pitch selection learns heavily toward the devastating breaking stuff as the count evolves in his favor. (Data from Brooks Baseball with “curve” distinguished from “slow curve,” which has a much lower whiff rate)

Career vs. lefties

Pitch

All counts

1st pitch

2 strikes

4-seam fastball

23%

27%

16%

Slider

8%

5%

18%

Curve

8%

1%

26%

Career vs. righties

Pitch

All counts

1st pitch

2 strikes

4-seam fastball

35%

46%

28%

Slider

24%

20%

34%

Curve

4%

4%

6%

In his first start of 2013, Darvish went with the cut fastball much more than the harder, more typical four-seam fastball. Still, that’s been an easier pitch for hitters to jump on, as opposed to just waiting and getting the breaking stuff late.

Overall, he gets a 23.1 percent whiff rate on the slider and 24.2 percent on the curve, which cluster late in plate appearances, and 13.0 percent, 9.9 percent, and 9.0 percent on the respective fastball variations: the cutter, the four-seamer, and the sinker.

The Angels may be a (much) better lineup than the Astros, but they’re certainly not immune to a case of the whiffs. In their opening weekend series in Cincinnati, they struck out a total of 36 times, led by Josh Hamilton’s six and five apiece from Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo.

Trout and Trumbo—albeit with the usual caveats of small sample size and batter/pitcher matchups—also combined to strike out 11 times in 38 plate appearances against Darvish in their divisional meetings last year, while Hamilton will get a very interesting first look at his former teammate.

It could add up to a lot more of the same from Darvish, who was a sexy Cy Young pick with a year of adjustment already behind him. Or with an emphasis on avoiding deep counts and staying away from the breaking stuff against a pitcher who seems less walk-prone than he once was, the Angels could use these trends to their advantage.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Angels,  Rangers,  Yu Darvish

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