Yu Darvish almost had a perfect game in his first start of 2013. After his up and down rookie season last year, some believe that this is the year that Darvish adjusts and really becomes one of the top pitchers in baseball, possibly even a dark horse for the Cy Young.
As seen over the past season, he has an incredible repertoire that keeps hitters guessing and unbalanced. The Angels were able to get to him in his second start of the season, tagging him for three runs as he struggled with his control and had to exit the game due to a blister on his pitching hand. Perhaps we can chalk this game's mediocre stat line to his injury but there is a way to increase your odds of beating Darvish.
Zachary Levine composed an article for ESPN Insider explaining that batters have a much better chance of beating Darvish on his first pitch ($). Once he gets ahead in the count, he's likely going to be in complete control so batters have to be aggressive early. In fact, the hit that broke up Darvish's perfect game in the ninth inning against the Astros was on the first pitch. On the other hand, 14 of 16 Houston hitters who got to two strikes in the count were struck out.
On the first pitch in 2012, Darvish gave up a .959 OPS. The league average OPS on the first pitch was .885 in 2012. Normally, he uses his fastball on the first pitch (27% against LHH, 46% against RHH) and then reverts to his off-speed selection with two strikes (44% slider or curve against LHH, 40% slider or curve against RHH). He posted whiff rates of 23.1% on his slider and 24.2% on his curve.
In 2013, he's throwing everything harder. His fastball, so far, is averaging 94.5 MPH compared to 92.8 MPH in 2012. His curve is averaging 78.2 MPH, five ticks higher than what it was in 2012. It's still early in the season so his velocity may come back down towards his averages from last year but it's something worth noticing.
If Darvish had two strikes on a hitter, it's more or less game over. Last year, the league average OPS for pitchers who had two strikes on a hitter was .517. In comparison, Darvish only gave up a .366 OPS. In over half of his plate appearances, Darvish had two strikes on the hitter.
In addition, 36% of plate appearances had him ahead of the batter. When pitchers were ahead in the count, the league average OPS was .514. When Darvish was ahead in the count, batters hit for a .397 OPS. Needless to say, if you're going to succeed against him, you cannot fall behind in the count or get two strikes.
Darvish averaged 3.87 pitchers per plate appearance last year. 62% of his pitches were strikes. 45% of his pitches were swung at and 58% of the time he threw a first pitch strike. As explained above, if batters are falling behind Darvish, their chances of getting on base are plummeting much more than against a league average pitcher. The best chance of getting to Darvish, other than getting ahead in the count, is to attack the first pitch.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.