Going into Sunday afternoon's rubber match to determine the winner of this Rangers/Tigers skirmish, Miguel Cabrera boasted a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 20-to-0 in 35 plate appearances this season where he had worked the count to 3-0. Prince Fielder? 33-to-1 in 43 plate appearances. Allow me to restate that for emphasis: in 78 total plate appearances this season where Fielder/Cabrera had worked the count to 3-0, they had gone on to strike out just once, and had gone on to draw a walk 53 times.
A pitcher might have managed to claw and scrape his way out of such a 3-0 hole and go on to retire one slugger or the other on a ball in play, but he was far likelier to go ahead and concede the at-bat, and based on that 1 K in 78 PA statistic, a strikeout was virtually out of the question.
During the first inning of yesterday's tilt, though, Yu Darvish mired himself in back-to-back 3-0 counts against Fielder and Cabrera (with a runner on second base, to boot), fired off consecutive strikes to bring both counts to 3-2, and then miraculously struck both Fielder and Cabrera out swinging. They had been all but impervious to the strikeout this season after going up in the count 3-0, and it didn't matter, because Darvish blew them away anyway.
I don't mean to get hung up on this bit of statistical minutia, but I do feel like that first-inning sequence was just quintessential Yu Darvish, and that it was also sort of a microcosm of his season -- a season that seems to constantly vacillate between maddening and brilliant, with little in the way of predictability from one batter or inning or start to the next.
Now, we did have the good fortune of getting a bit less maddening and a bit more brilliant yesterday, as Darvish sort of applied the brakes to his recent skid and pitched well enough for Texas to secure a win (6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 8 K, 0 HR, 120 pitches, 68 strikeouts), and talked after the game about his comfort level being enhanced by some recent coaching advice and his recent efforts to emulate his NPB game-prep regimen, as well as the latest adjustment to his pitching mindset:
"I think the biggest difference from my past was that after I walked those guys, I didn’t think about it,"Darvish said. "I didn’t let it drag on into my next hitters. I just concentrated on competing against the next hitter and getting those guys out. That thought process of ‘I walked him, so be it,’ might be the reason that I was able to concentrate and focus on getting the next guys out."
So, you still had a decidedly mixed performance where Darvish's command ebbed and flowed, where he struggled to maintain a ball/strike ratio and a level of efficiency conducive to longer-range success, and where his flashes of dominance were rudely interrupted by major trouble on several occasions; a key distinction for this start relative to other recent starts where he floundered was that the walks didn't come back to haunt him this time, and that's great and all, but now the question becomes, 'can he maintain this new, more confident mindset?'
Because the more you look back at this year's winding Darvish narrative, the more apparent it becomes that this has just been one great, big, season-long effort for him to find just the right combination of game prep, pitching approach/mechanics, and mindset to forge a path to sustainable effectiveness on the bump. When something hasn't worked or hasn't clicked, he's tried something else; heck, it's the middle of August and he's still tweaking the process after every start. Again, though, that's the thing about his latest bunch of comments: if he's legitimately hitting his groove/comfort level right now and him doing so is going to effectuate much better pitching, then that's awesome ... but if his next start goes awry, does he try something else entirely?
I don't know the answer to that question, and, frankly, I've grown a little weary of speculating on what's going through his head from one start to the next. What I would like to do now instead is point out a couple of things about his six post-ASB starts (38.0 IP, 40 H, 45 K, 26 BB, 7.11 ERA) that jump out at me when stacked against his six starts immediately preceding the All-Star break (41.2 IP, 33 H, 51 K, 18 BB, 4.10 ERA), when times were a bit more prosperous for Darvish (data courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info)
(1) The fastball hasn't been as good. During those six starts immediately preceding the All-Star break, Darvish averaged 93.1 mph on his fastball -- not including the lower-velocity cut or split-fingered fastballs, of course -- and maxed out at 97.1 mph, with a swinging-strike rate of 9.9 percent, an overall strike rate of 63.1 percent, and a strike zone rate of 48.5 percent. In his six starts since the All-Star break, Darvish has averaged 92.4 mph with the fastball (96.7 mph max) with a swinging-strike rate of 7.1 percent, a strike rate of 60.9 percent, and a strike zone rate of 46.9 percent.
A few of these changes are quite subtle, and it's possible that inaccurate pitch classifications/velocity readings are skewing the results a bit, but from a velocity/control standpoint, Darvish's fastball just hasn't been the same since the All-Star break. That said, though, his fastball yesterday closely approximated his pre-ASB fastball (93.0 mph average, 95.2 mph max, 10.2 percent swinging-strike rate, 65.3 percent strike rate, 50.6 percent zone rate), and that gives you a little something extra to hope on, as it could be that the velocity drop stemmed from something more temporary in nature, and wasn't an ominous leading indicator of Darvish running out of gas.
Of course, the fact that Darvish threw 120 pitches over six-plus innings on a sweltering August afternoon in Texas also seems to suggest that the Rangers aren't particularly troubled by the prospect of him running out of gas. I hope they're correct in that assessment.
(2) His breaking ball against same-handed batters has gone to hell. I'm not quite sure what to make of this, but since the All-Star break, his swinging-strike rate with curveballs/sliders against right-handed hitters has almost been halved (24.7 percent before, 13.6 percent after), and yesterday afternoon he induced just one swing-and-miss with the curveball/slider out of 25 such pitches against right-handers. I'm at something of a loss as far as what's going on here; the heat maps indicate that he's putting his breaking ball low and away more often than he did before the All-Star break, but his results have been worse with it, leaving one to contemplate whether he's being too predictable with the offering and/or not sequencing it in the most efficient manner possible.
What does this all leave us? I wish I knew. Tim Cowlishaw writes this morning that Darvish should be relegated to long relief in the post-season if he continues to struggle, but barring an implosion of apocalyptic proportions, that's just not going to happen. The Rangers are going to live or die in October due in no small part to what Darvish ends up giving Texas after Game 162, and we still don't have much, if any, idea of what he's going to deliver ... and for the next 7-8 weeks, that's for us to fret over, and for Darvish to try and figure out once and for all.