Is Yu Darvish Afraid To Throw Strikes?

By Rob Neyer@ Baseball Nation

After beating the Detroit Tigers Thursday night, Yu Darvishis 2-0 with a 3.57 ERA. He hasn’t allowed a single home run.

Pretty good, right?

Well, sure. Those numbers are pretty good. It’s some others that are just a tad worrisome. In his 17⅔ innings, Darvish has issued 13 walks. That’s a lot of walks, and essentially negates his 14 strikeouts. Well, balances in an ugly way, at least. So what’s with all the walks? Here’s FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron:

The main reason appears to be directly related to the first pitch of each at-bat. Darvish has thrown a first pitch strike to just 48% of the batters he’s faced – league average is 59%. Most pitchers, especially the good ones, are able to get ahead in the count with regularity and expand the zone from there. Darvish has had to pitch from behind in the count to 46 of the 88 batters he’s faced this year, and opposing batters are just choosing to lay off his hard-to-hit breaking balls and wait for a fastball that they know is coming eventually.

–snip–

In Japan, of course, this wasn’t Darvish at all. He walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings in 2011, and his ability to pound the zone while still missing bats is part of what made him so good. However, the quality of competition is clearly different in the Major Leagues, and to date, Darvish hasn’t shown the same ability to consistently throw his fastball for strikes.

It’s a fine line, perhaps, but I think the problem isn’t that Darvish can’t throw his fastball for strikes — especially to left-handed hitters — but rather that he won’t. I just don’t see any reason to believe that a pitcher who absolutely pounded the strike zone with great stuff in Japan would suddenly lose the ability to do the same thing here.

And make no mistake Rangers fans, we have seen this thing play out before with Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In 2008, far & away Dice-K’s best season he went 18-3 while posting a 2.90 ERA.

At face value this appears to be one hell of a season, but closer inspection reveals the ugly truth of it.

Because of his league leading 94 walks and insane penchant for “nibbling” around the plate he only managed 167 innings in 29 starts, or five & two-thirds inning per start. The Red Sox bullpen collapsed in September under a heavy workload caused by Wakefield and Matsuzaka’s short starts.

Sure, maybe his stuff just doesn’t play as well here. Maybe Japanese hitters chased a lot more pitches outside the strike zone. Maybe maybe maybe. Maybe Yu Darvish has exactly the same stuff, exactly the same skills, exactly the same talent that gave him a sub-2.00 ERA in each of his last four seasons in Japan. But maybe he doesn’t have the same confidence in his stuff and his skills and his talent when he looks plateward and sees, one after another, the Greatest Hitters on Earth.

So he’s staying away from those Earth’s Greatest Left-Handed Hitters, and to this point it’s sorta worked; he has that 3.57 ERA, and he hasn’t allowed a homer. Ultimately, though, he can’t maintain a 3.57 ERA while walking seven batters per nine innings. It’s possible, though, that he won’t figure that out until he takes a few bad losses.

Ultimately, he won’t be the pitcher the Rangers thought they were getting until he starts challenging left-handed hitters. And yes, giving up the occasional home run. That’s what happens over here, no matter who you are.

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