Monday night, Yu Darvish made his major-league debut for the Texas Rangers in their tilt against the Seattle Mariners. It felt like expectations were on the extreme sides of the spectrum: either Darvish was going to be the second-coming of Sandy Koufax, or he was going to be the second-coming of Hideki Irabu, with no middle ground at all. In truth, Darvish was both phenom and disaster in his first start. After a first inning that was so bad that the Red Sox anointed him their new closer, Darvish settled down, only giving up a single additional run, and making his way through 5.2 innings of work. All of this was enough to allow the big bats of Texas to clobber Seattle's pitching staff, and Darvish finished the night with his first ML win.
While a single start is a remarkably small sample size when determining future performance, there are still lessons to be learned about the NPB import's abilities. Though I was unable to watch the game, the internet is kind enough to provide us with PITCHf/x data, and we'll use that as the lens with which we can examine his successes and failures on Monday.
The Terrible First Inning
As you might have heard, Yu did not get off on the right foot on Monday. The Mariner lineup isn't what one might consider imposing, full of worse-than-league-average hitters surrounding a few young, promising bats. He opened things up by walking Chone Figgins on four straight fastballs, only the last of which even sniffed the strike zone. Things got better against Dustin Ackley, and Darvish managed a K after breaking out his slider and two curves, getting a swing from Ackley on a ball out of the zone. Then came the parade of singles, all of which cam off of fastballs down the hearth of the plate. All of these were on fastballs (either four-seam or two-seam) in the heart of the strike zone.
Darvish followed up with a walk to Michael Saunders, a single to Miguel Olivo (at least this one wasn't a fastball over the heart of the plate), and a four-pitch walk to Murenori Kawasaki on four almost-identical pitches. Then, the pain was over, as Darvish got Brendan Ryan on three pitches for a strikeout, and induced a groundball out from Chone Figgins to end the inning.
The major problems in this first inning were twofold, and fairly obvious: Darvish either had trouble finding the strike zone, or he left his fastballs in the middle of the plate for hitters to swing at. But the PITCHf/x data also tells us that he was getting swinging strikes on a number of his pitches as well. He got five swinging strikes on forty-two pitches, which comes out to about 11.9% swinging strikes. If he could maintain that over a full game or full season, that would be quite the feat. To put things in perspective, no qualified starter in 2011 had a swinging strike rate higher than Michael Pineda's 11.8% swinging strike rate. And that was in a bad inning!
The Next Four-And-Two-Thirds Innings
Once Darvish found his groove later on, he started inducing a few groundball outs and working lower in the zone. While he still wasn't masterful with his control, he only walked one more batter (but hit another). Believe it or not, every single ball that was put into play and was an out, in innings two through six, was off of Yu's four-seam fastball. The four-seamer, which averaged 92.8 mph but topped out at 95.8 mph, didn't get many swings-and-misses, but was actually located pretty well through the rest of the game. In fact, the heater was good for an overall Pitch Type Linear Weight of -0.0653. Given that Yu threw eleven of these for called balls in the first inning, that's quite an improvement as the game went on.
One thing I found a little surprising was that, given Darvish's control issues in the first inning, is that over the next five innings, there were six instances in which hitters swung at Darvish's first pitch of the at bat. This did not work out in the hitter's favor, not once. Swinging at Darvish's first pitch in innings two through six resulted in two groundouts, a lineout, a flyout, a foul ball (leading to a strikeout) and a swinging strike (leading to a strikeout). One might think that since Darvish had his control issues early, the Mariners hitters might be even more careful in choosing early pitches to swing at.
Finally, despite showing better control in the later parts of the game, Yu didn't get ahead in the count very often through his final five innings either. By my count, I have Darvish actually being ahead in the count (as opposed to even or behind) within either the first, second, or third pitch of the PA six times after the first inning. Darvish was not getting ahead of hitters early with any regularity, until later in the game when he located his first pitches of the PA for strikes more often.
The slider was the weapon of choice for Darvish, and despite the Mariners rolling out a lefty-heavy lineup, Yu got swinging strikes on six of the 20 slide-pieces he threw during the entire game. Once Darvish's heater got going, it actually had a 59% strike percentage over the course of the whole game, something that I wouldn't have expected due to the four-pitch walks, wild pitch, and HBP from the game.
At the same time, Darvish threw six cutters, and was only able to get one called for a strike. He'll probably want to locate his cutter better, or at least get a few more hitters to bite on it. The one that darted in for a called strike was thrown to a right-handed batter, while all the rest were thrown to lefties.
Yu changed speeds quite often, going from his high-octane heater to a slowpoke charlie at a moment's notice, without using a changeup at all. He got swinging strikes at a solid clip, snagging ten out of 110 pitches. And once he started locating his fastball in places other than the center of the plate or the backstop, he was able to. If he can get ahead in the count more consistently, he's likely to reduce his pitch count and be able to control the plate appearance.
This outing was supposed to be boom-or-bust for Mr. Darvish, and in many respects, it was both. He showed his elite stuff and high velocity, but his lack of control nipped him at the beginning on the game. Though not necessarily predictive of his future success or stats, this information may give us a clue as to what we'll see from Yu going forward in 2012.
All PITCHf/x data comes from the fine folks at BrooksBaseball.