Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/21/12
Alternate headline: Yu Darvish Stops Being Polite, Starts Getting Real
Yu Darvish pitched again on Thursday, and Yu Darvish dominated again on Thursday. Unlike when he dominated the Mariners in his previous outing, this time he dominated a good team on the road, allowing a run over eight innings against the Angels. The Rangers beat the Angels, which the Angels found particularly devastating, and while it wasn’t all Darvish’s fault, it was a lot Darvish’s fault. Said Michael Young afterward:
“Yu has just been awesome,” said 3B Michael Young. “I hope people are appreciating what they are seeing, because rookies don’t usually get stronger as the season goes on. It’s usually the other way around. Guys are running on fumes as the season is ending. Not Yu. He’s getting stronger and better. He’s just been rock solid.”

Plenty of players keep from wearing down during the stretch run, but few pick up their games as Darvish has. Darvish has unquestionably gotten stronger and better, and what he’s done lately has been Medlenesque. Before we get to that, a pitch sequence against Vernon Wells from Thursday’s eighth inning. The count is 1-and-1.

Realistically I could’ve chosen any Darvish strikeout, because they’re all esthetically pleasing. I liked this one because I’m a fan of the lollipop curve, and because I like Wells’ helpless body language. In truth, the pitch was off the plate and Wells was probably expressing his exasperation over the call, but had I not told you that, the body language still would’ve made sense. Darvish can make batters feel helpless when he’s on, and these days he’s more on than the ceiling fan in my kitchen. (The ceiling fan in my kitchen is always on.)
By the numbers, Thursday’s was Darvish’s sixth outstanding outing in a row. Since August 17, Darvish has started six times, throwing 44 innings and allowing ten runs. Over that span he’s got nine walks and 52 strikeouts, throwing two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. This is the sort of performance stretch some people expected when Darvish first signed on with the Rangers. This isn’t the sort of performance stretch people saw coming after Darvish got some big-league innings under his belt.
Darvish, you’ll recall, was the author of some statistical obscenity in Japan. Based on those numbers, and based on his stuff, the Rangers spent a small fortune to sign him to a contract. That’s when the comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka really took off, and for a while Darvish did little to separate himself. Matsuzaka was the easy and lazy comparison, sure, but he was also an appropriate comparison. Darvish, for months, showed inconsistent command of the strike zone.
Through August 12, Darvish walked nearly 13 percent of opposing batters while throwing 61 percent of his pitches for strikes. Since August 17, he’s walked under six percent of opposing batters while throwing 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. Out of his 28 starts, Darvish has walked two or fewer batters 11 times. Six of those times have come in Darvish’s most recent six starts.
The obvious follow-up question is: so what’s changed? Comparing Darvish’s most recent six starts to his previous 22 starts, he’s nearly tripled the use of his cutter. He’s thrown fewer sliders and splitters. He’s been caught by Geovany Soto instead of Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba, and Soto has now basically been designated as Darvish’s personal catcher. There’s a correlation between the Soto acquisition and the Darvish hot streak, although clearly we can’t prove causation. No one can know if there’s causation; people just know that things are working for now.
Interestingly, while Darvish’s rate of pitches in the strike zone has gone up, it hasn’t gone up by as much as his strike rate. Batters, though, have been swinging a lot more often — 44 percent of the time through 22 starts, and 49 percent of the time through these last six starts. Seems to me there’s a reason for that. Announcers like to say there’s no more important pitch than the first pitch, and while that’s clearly untrue — the most important pitch is the last pitch! — the first pitch is important, and here’s what’s been happening with Darvish’s first pitches.

1st Pitch Result
Through 8/12
Since 8/17

Begin 1-0

Begin 0-1

In Play

First-pitch-strike rate is meaningful, but it includes first pitches that are put in play, and it’s better to have this sort of breakdown. During his hot streak, Darvish has done a much better job of getting ahead of the hitters, and Darvish is lethal when he gets out ahead. Some AL league-average numbers:
After 1-0: .268/.377/.446, 14% BB, 15% K
After 0-1: .226/.265/.350, 4% BB, 27% K
Some Darvish numbers:
After 1-0: .244/.404/.378, 21% BB, 18% K
After 0-1: .170/.226/.269, 5% BB, 40% K
There’s not even much in the way of BABIP to blame for those batting-line splits. When Darvish has fallen behind early, he’s had a devil of a time fighting back. When Darvish has gotten ahead early, he’s reduced opposing hitters to pitchers. Darvish has done better getting ahead early of late, and over his last six starts he’s allowed a .394 OPS. I’m just going to go ahead and let that sentence sink in.
Darvish’s turnaround isn’t as simple as saying he’s thrown more quality first-pitch strikes — these things are always incredibly complicated, and I imagine Darvish has just been doing a better job of everything. A better job of getting ahead, a better job of staying ahead, and a better job of fighting back after falling behind. He has a repertoire such that, when a hitter is in a pitcher-friendly count, he can’t have any idea what’s going to be thrown to him. Darvish’s location isn’t quite good enough for him to be able to consistently make up for first-pitch balls, but that’s been less of an issue. Command is less important when you’re ahead and you throw a dozen different pitches.
It’s too soon to say which Yu Darvish is the real Yu Darvish going forward, but the Rangers now have compelling reason to believe that the walks are going to be less of an issue. Darvish was never a guy who was easy to hit, as he’s posted one of the very lowest contact rates in the league. Over his last six starts, he’s allowed a contact rate of just 68 percent. Given that unhittability, Darvish was never going to be anything close to ineffective. With fewer walks, though, he can actually be an ace — the ace the Rangers thought they were signing, the ace who’s one of the best pitchers on the planet. It’s too soon to say whether Darvish has taken a leap forward. It’s not too soon to say that he might’ve.
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