Six days ago, I wrote a little bit about the big fly in the ointment with respect to Yu Darvish -- that is, the huge walk totals that were compromising his overall performance -- and conveyed why they were both frustrating for us to watch and damaging to Darvish's performance/well-being. It is, after all, pretty damn hard on multiple levels for a starting pitcher to work deep into a game if he's constantly throwing stressful pitches in high-leverage spots; it all takes a serious toll from a physical/mental fatigue standpoint, and the high-leverage spots stem from guys reaching base, which, in turn, further reduce an already finite allotment of available pitches with which you can generate outs.
It's a brutal, unforgiving example of a single flaw -- albeit a major flaw -- snowballing into an enormous problem, and even though Darvish has had ace-like moments and starts and even individual pitches this year, the control simply hadn't been anywhere near consistently good enough to merit calling Darvish a legitimate ace.
Since that post six days ago, however, Darvish has taken the bump in both Houston and San Diego (this time with the benefit of additional rest, as well as an apparent mechanical recalibration), has struggled to some extent in the early going of both starts, and then ... well, it isn't hard to explain on the surface, but it is kind of hard to explain from a process standpoint. In both starts, Darvish kicked his game into the next gear and significantly elevated the total package of stuff, control, and command within the zone after having run through his opponent's batting order about 1.5 times; once he found that next gear, the lights went out and the party was over, as Everth Cabrera found out the hard way on one particularly nasty inning-ending 95 mph heater (h/t @OrMoyal):
The point of curiosity here is that Darvish, by his own insistence, says that there were no mechanical irregularities afflicting him early on yesterday, or anything of that sort, and that the only difference between the early innings (where the control was lacking) and the late innings (where he looked like a monster) was ...
“Mentally and physically, mechanic-wise, there was no difference from the beginning to the end,” Darvish said. “I just think it was going through the game, my body was getting warmed up and getting into the rhythm of the game.”
It then struck me that Darvish struggling early on as opposed to struggling later on hadn't really been his M.O. leading up to yesterday's effort against the Padres, and, sure enough, his full-season numbers indicate that things have sort of taken a strange turn in that regard:
|1st PA in G, as SP||118||8||21||2||1||0||15||34||2.27||.208||.314||.248||25||.309||60||64|
|2nd PA in G, as SP||117||16||26||5||0||4||14||22||1.57||.263||.359||.434||43||.293||124||116|
|3rd PA in G, as SP||101||9||19||5||1||3||12||25||2.08||.216||.317||.398||35||.267||101||85|
|4th+ PA in G, as SP||25||2||7||2||0||0||5||7||1.40||.368||.520||.474||9||.583||182||178|
What I think you really hope to see from this point forward are more examples of Darvish starting strong, finishing strong, and chewing up outs between the two endpoints without being completely bogged down by occurrences of erratic control and handouts of free bases. I don't expect perfection, nor do I even expect or demand that Darvish pitch like an ace at this point, but the lapses in strike-throwing have grown tiresome (though they have improved in these last two starts), and one of the things you do worry about a little bit is how a disciplined lineup might exploit that weakness in a post-season context. He's beaten very good offenses this year already, so I'm not worried about whether he's capable or not; it's really more a matter of "will it all click when it really counts?"
Right now, though, I'm just happy that things are trending back in the right direction after a very rough outing in Oakland three starts ago, and I'm encouraged by the fact that the full-season walk rate has finally slipped back underneath the 5.0 BB/9 mark, and I'm glad that the one component of the machine that needs fixing is the control aspect, and not the capacity for missing bats. You can fix control with the right adjustments, but you can't just magically juice the raw stuff and start baffling hitters ... unless you're R.A. Dickey. Darvish is getting there, and now it's a matter of him keeping it up.