"Remember when you actually looked forward to Yu Darvish starting a game?"
The lead-up to last night's series opener in Boston was characterized by much grousing and complaining over Ron Washington's lineup/defensive choices, but, in the end, those choices didn't materially impact the outcome of the game. Yes, we could probably engage in a lengthy hypothetical argument about whether a better lineup would have produced more runs and altered the space-time continuum in such a way that Yu Darvish would have pitched better, but that didn't happen, and the overwhelming likelihood is that the Rangers still lose that game even if they had deployed a less mind-boggling defensive alignment and a more potent collection of bats.
The Rangers likely still lose that game because Darvish, for all of the bats that he managed to miss (6.2 IP, 11 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 9 K, 0 HR), just wasn't good enough to win it.
That, unfortunately, has become something of a running theme of late, as Darvish has now allowed six-plus runs in four of his last five starts (dating back to the All-Star break), and now finds his ERA residing north of the 4.50 line of demarcation for the first time since early April. The defense-independent statistical cocktail (10.3 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.80 FIP, 3.90 xFIP) still portrays Darvish as a better-than-average starting pitcher this season, and as someone who figures to finish his 2012 campaign within spitting distance of the four-win marker ... but, unfortunately, the run prevention (4.57 ERA) hasn't been there, and the murmurs of discontent over Darvish's season become a little more audible.
I feel like most of us were reasonably well-grounded with our expectations on Darvish coming into the season, in that we realized that his 2012 performance curve wasn't going to be an especially flat one. We knew that Darvish's NPB-to-MLB jump would entail a lengthy and arduous adjustment process, one that might very well span most or all of the 2012 season, and we knew that he would hit rough patches and struggle to deliver quality results at times. With that said, though, we also knew that he was endowed with an ace-caliber skill set, that he would deliver his share of brilliant starts this year, and that he boasted the capability to pitch like a legitimate All-Star right away -- a capability which actualized over the first three months of the season, and culminated with him deservedly grabbing the final roster spot on the American League All-Star squad.
Since that point in time, though, Darvish has either stagnated or actually crept backwards from a developmental standpoint. His arsenal of weapons, deep and potent as it might be, has been greatly undermined by both control and command issues. He has struggled to throw not just strikes, but quality strikes -- deficiencies which plagued both his fastballs and breaking balls on Monday night. His pitch sequencing has, at various times, been perplexing, as he has occasionally exhibited the tendency to 'pitch backwards' and fall victim to an apparent over-reliance upon his secondary pitches.
The most worrisome fly in the ointment, though, has been Darvish's outward response to his struggles. I don't have the willpower or the patience to aggregate the whole collection of quotes, but if you have been diligently following the stories on Darvish produced by the Rangers beats this year, you know that Darvish has, at times, conveyed a distinct sense of not really knowing how to fix his performance and bounce back after a bad start.
By that, I mean that Darvish has already undertaken a couple of rounds of post-start mechanical tweaks this year (with mixed success, if I recall correctly), has talked about needing to adjust his mentality due to being too focused on avoiding walks ... and after saying that he needed to become "a new pitcher, a better pitcher" following last week's poor start against the Angels, he offered up more "I need to ..."-type remarks to the press assemblage last night:
"When I came over, I had to make adjustments to the major leagues, and I have been open to that," Darvish said. "But the Rangers want me for the pitcher that I was. Pitching coach Mike Maddux said you go out and give it all you got, battle and compete and stay focused. Don't get too emotional or get too upset. Instead of just trying to get hitters out, I was worried about things like throwing first-pitch strikes. I was thinking negatively. That was something that I had never done in Japan. I need to just focus, compete and just get hitters out."
What follows now are a couple of gut-driven, potentially baseless statements that you can either accept or disregard as you like: I believe the Rangers knew as well as anyone that Darvish would encounter some control/command struggles in his stateside transition, and that this would be a long, vacillating adjustment process with plentiful bumps in the road ... but I can't shake the feeling that they expected him to be better than this by now, and that they expected him to have a better grasp of self-diagnosis and performance correction than this by now. I think they expected him to be more resilient than this by now, and I imagine that Darvish sounding like he really doesn't know how to right the ship has made life all that more stressful for the coaching staff and the front office alike.
There's one other thing that I want to mention here, and that's the nature of his 2012 workload compared to his workloads of years past. Darvish, you see, posted a long string of sub-2.00 ERA seasons in NPB with correspondingly low walk and hit totals, which helped alleviate the amount of accumulated stress on his arm stemming from a high count of 'stress pitches' thrown in high-leverage situations and/or with runners on base. We can't perform a comparative tally of the number of pitches Darvish has logged in high-leverage spots this year, but what we can do is take a look at how many pitches he has been throwing in various base states and work from there:
Overall: 2,304 pitches (No. 14 out of 102 qualifying starting pitchers in 2012)
Bases empty: 1,260 pitches (No. 49 out of 102)
Men on base: 1,044 pitches (No. 3 out of 102)
Men in scoring position: 619 pitches (No. 4 out of 102)
Bases loaded: 70 pitches (No. 6 out of 102)
What does this tell us, you ask? This tells us that Darvish is under the high-stress gun just about as often as any starting pitcher in baseball -- pitching with runners constantly on base is a far more demanding task than breezing along with the bases empty and being able to let off the gas here and there. You can't let off the gas when there are runners on base who present grave and immediate scoring threats.
Case in point: Darvish's average fastball velocities this season neatly correlate with the urgency of the situation on the basepaths, as ESPN's Stats & Info database indicates:
Overall: 1165 fastballs, 92.9 mph average
Bases empty: 636 fastballs, 92.6 mph average
Men on base: 529 fastballs, 93.0 mph average
Men in scoring position: 273 fastballs, 93.1 mph average
Bases loaded: 39 pitches, 93.3 mph average
As Dave Allen noted in the above-linked ESPN article on stress pitches: "When the game is not close or there are no runners on, a pitcher's best stuff is not necessary, but when the game is close, it's time to shift to another gear. These higher-leverage pitches almost certainly take more out of a pitcher than when he is cruising." Darvish is throwing more high-stress pitches right now than he has likely ever thrown in his life, and he's doing that while simultaneously trying to fix his erratic performance of late, acclimatize to the toughest baseball league in the world, and remain fresh through the rough summer months. It's really no wonder that he's a mess right now, or that, in addition to his control/command issues last night, his stuff looked a bit flat.
I'd like to believe that Darvish will flourish into a reliable front-line starter in the next two months (after all, it wasn't all that long ago that he seemed very close to taking the next step), but I find myself becoming more and more skeptical of such an eventuality coming to pass, and that has me looking more and more towards 2013 as the potential target date for Darvish taking the next legit step forward towards acehood.
As things stand right now, Darvish is still very much capable of spinning a great start on you and posting up some fat strikeout numbers, but without any real semblance of tpconsistency in his performance, you're talking about a pitcher who's far closer to being a dice roll than a sure thing every fifth day ... and, at this point, I just don't know if it's realistic to expect anything more out of Darvish than a series of dice rolls as we embark upon the stretch run towards October.