Heading into the 2012 season, many people were anxious to see how talented rookies Yu Darvish and Matt Moore would perform. Darvish was advertised as the best Asian pitching import this side of Hideo Nomo, dominating the Japan Pacific League for over five years with statistics that looked like typos: a 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.0.
Moore was recognized as one of the top overall prospects in the minors, punching out 12.7 batters per nine innings, and did not disappoint in a strongly brewed cup of coffee in 2011. With the Rays needing every single win to complete their now legendary comeback over the Red Sox, Moore struck out 11 Yankees in his first major league start. He then spun seven shutout against the Rangers in the playoffs, allowing just four baserunners.
The stage was set for an epic Rookie of the Year race (a certain Steelhead notwithstanding).
But while there were flashes of brilliance, it became clear as early as April that there were going to be growing pains. For the pessimists, it was evident from the first batter Darvish faced, walking the mighty Chone Figgins on four pitches to begin his MLB career. Both would labor through their early starts, with Yu issuing 14 free passes in his first three appearances, while Moore walked nine in his first two. Unfortunately, the struggles were not just due to possible early season jitters, as they'd both go on to be among the league's worst in walk rate:
Quite simply, that is not good company. Having watched Darvish in particular a good amount, this was not just a product of nibbling or a Trevor Bauer-like mentality to always go for the punch out at any cost. There were times he just could not throw a strike even if he so desparately wanted to. He commonly walked bad hitters, on four or five pitches, often times not coming close to the target or plate.
|Bottom 4th: Seattle|
|- J. Jaso walked|
|- M. Carp walked, J. Jaso to second|
|- J. Jaso to third, M. Carp to second on passed ball|
|- B. Ryan walked|
- D. Ackley singled to shallow right, J. Jaso scored, M. Carp to third, B. Ryan to second
With apologies to Jaso, who is not a bad hitter, maddening sequences like those were not all that infrequent.
Still, thanks largely to a sparkling September, Darvish finished the season with a 3.29 FIP, and Moore posted a 3.01 ERA after the All-Star Break. For the season, their swing and contact rates were remarkably similar:
Yu's 72.8% contact rate was the lowest among qualified starters, and they both missed bats with the best of them, either in or out of the strike zone. No one could doubt the quality of their stuff. It was a matter of whether they could harness it.
And in their sophomore seasons, they've gone in polar opposite directions.
Darvish is breaking projection systems with a 40% strikeout rate (72 in 45 2/3 innings), inciting chats and comment sections across the worldwide web on whether Yu can become the first to 300 Ks since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002. For all the discussion in Washington about creating jobs, we need more people making Yu Darvish GIFs.
He faces the Astros again tomorrow. Pray for them.
But while these current rates are simply mind-blowing (and unsustainable), we've known Yu could rack up the Ks. What has been even more heart-warming is that he has trimmed his walk rate all the way down to 8.4%, and 2.96 per nine. Making him the best pitcher in baseball right now.
Matt Moore, on the other hand, has not only not improved, he's taken steps back. After issuing just one free pass in his first start of the season, Moore has walked eight in his last ten innings, and now owns the league's worst walk rate at 13.2%. Despite his shiny 2.14 ERA, his FIP is 4.42, with a BABIP of .196. Yes yes we know about the Rays' magical abilities to prevent runs, but I doubt any of their coaches are celebrating Moore's start in earnest.
So how do these two phenoms, who looked so similarly a year ago, look so differently in 2013? Let's start with Moore:
The number that immediately jumps out is the First Strike %. We know how strongly correlated that is with walk rate, and yes, Moore's 47.4% is the lowest in the league. And it's wreaking havoc on the rest of his profile.
Hitters are swinging less overall (third lowest in league) because they know he struggles to find the plate, and are chasing less because they don't have two strikes. But are making more contact when they do get a pitch in the zone, because they are likely ahead in the count and expecting the fastball.
That cover it?
Obviously it's not that simple. But you can see the trend- he needs to get strike one early. With league-wide scouting as advanced as it is, that means it needs to be in the zone more often than not, as hitters are not going to help him out by fishing at first-pitch balls.
For Darvish, the rates paint a pretty interesting picture:
This will be very surprising to you, I know, but all of his contact rates are the lowest in baseball, and his SwStr% the highest (side note: Ryan Dempster has been extraordinarily good). But his Zone% is essentially the same, as is his F-Strike%. He's not throwing any more strikes in terms of location than he did last year, nor are hitters swinging more overall- they're just missing when they do.
And that speaks to the excellence of his slider. He's more than doubled his usage of his best secondary pitch, up to 31.5% from 14.3% last year, particularly at the expense of his four-seamer (down to 34% from 47%). For heaven's sake, I hope his elbow stays intact, because the effectiveness is startling:
1. Hitters are making contact at the same rate on Darvish's pitches in the strike zone, as all of Felix Hernandez's pitches.
2. Hitters are making contact at the same rate on all of Darvish's pitches, as Clayton Kershaw's pitches out of the zone.
3. Darvish's 75.3% Z-Contact% (contact rate on pitches in the zone) would be the lowest since Johan Santana's 74.6% in 2004. He was pretty good that year.
There is nothing wrong with Matt Moore's Contact % of 78.8%. But it's not good enough to make up for his mediocre control.
Yu Darvish also has mediocre control. But hitters don't foul off his pitches- they miss. Meaning a lower strike percentage for Darvish is not equivalent to those of other pitchers, when a good amount of those "strikes" are boosting the ratio, but not putting away anyone. If a hitter is fooled just once by a darting pitch out of the zone, with Yu's 40.6% O-Contact rate, he's toast.
Darvish has fixed his walk rate, his one Achilles' heel, but not in the conventional way of being around the plate more.
He's fixed it by being practically untouchable.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and that ugly play-by-play box from Yahoo!.
Andrew is a fan contributor to Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams. He graduated from Stanford in 2009 with a degree in Communication, and currently works at a financial services firm in San Francisco. But he'd like to be a sports writer some day. Any feedback is much appreciated.