Oh how we have missed Yu. After nearly 22 months since his last major league start, the Texas Rangers ace was back on the mound last Saturday for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of 2015. It was well worth the wait, as Darvish delivered a fantastic opening performance. He was able to pick up a win in his 2016 debut against the Pirates at home with 81 pitches through five innings of work. Yu showed off the full repertoire of his five pitches in the outing also – which makes for a fun break down! So let’s stop babbling on and get to the goods already. Here’s the GIF breakdown of Yu Darvish’s 2016 debut in 12 GIFs.
As always, let’s begin with Yu’s strikezone plot from the outing:
Look at all the different colors! I feel sorry for hitters who are asked to face this arsenal. The variance Darvish offers in velocity and movement types is one of a kind. He mainly relied on his Fastball (FA) and Sinker (SI) on Saturday with his Slider (SL) being his favorite off-speed pitch of the outing. You can see how well he was able to keep his pitches in the zone too, which is good considering his career 3.58 BB/9. Yu looked completely in command of his pitches, aside from the slow Curveball (CS) that he only threw 4 times with only 1 of those ending up as a strike. He only gave up 3 hits, only walked 1, and struck out 7 while making some batters look terribly silly with his mixing of offerings. Let’s take a closer look at the bag of tricks Darvish keeps in that right arm of his.
One of the most eye-popping takeaways from Darvish’s outing was the velocity from his Fastball. He wasted no time in showing everyone that he hasn’t lost a hint of heat. This 98mph Fastball on a 1-2 count to Gregory Polanco in the 1st inning that somehow wasn’t called for strike three showcases it best:
The Fastball works incredibly well with Yu’s pitch mix. His philosophy is to show off his breaking pitches, Sinker, and Cutter early on to get hitters thinking about movement in all directions. Then he makes them look silly by neutralizing them with a pitch that doesn’t move at all at 95mph like he did here with Starling Marte in an 0-2 count:
Just like Yu did with Marte, once he got Matt Joyce to 0-2, he blew a 96mph Fastball by him for the strikeout to end the inning. Judging by Joyce’s reaction to the pitch, the last thing he was expecting was a straight heater down the middle in an 0-2 count:
Darvish’s Fastball has plus velocity and he already appears to be able to command it well in his first start. He mixes his offerings early on which allows him to fool batters with the straight Four-Seamer in situations when most pitchers would get punished for throwing a Fastball.
Yu threw his Sinker more than any other offering this past Saturday, throwing 31 of his 81 pitches as Sinkers. It runs in on righties and he’s able to throw it for strikes like he did here at 93mph at the knees in an 0-1 count to Andrew McCutchen:
It doesn’t just run in on righties, however, as this is a Sinker we’re talking about. Check out the amount of downward depth Darvish is able to generate at 94mph with this offering to start off Starling Marte in the 4th:
Almost identical to the Sinker Yu threw to McCutchen, he’s able to place this 0-1 93mph pitch to Jordy Mercer right at the knees with some great movement starting from off the plate. Beautiful pitch:
According to BrooksBaseball.net, Darvish touched upwards of 98mph with his Sinker and averaged just under 95mph with the pitch. It was his go-to on Saturday and the Pirates weren’t able to do much about it. It has great velocity, plus movement, and Yu was pinpointing it wherever he pleased for most of the night. He built the rest of his pitch usage and sequencing off the Sinker and it worked wonders against a Pittsburgh lineup that struggled to put balls into play.
Darvish’s best breaking pitch during the start was easily his Slider. It sat anywhere from 81-87mph and brought some wicked break that had the likes of Andrew McCutchen slightly buckling at the knees. This 82mph offering on a 2-2 count to Cutch in the first inning for Darvish’s first strikeout of 2016 is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Yu made Starling Marte look equally as silly as McCutchen with the Slider. Marte was only able to muster this ugly looking futile swing at the 81mph slide-piece from Darvish:
To cap off our Slider showcase, take a look at this sexy bender Darvish threw Jordy Mercer at 79mph in an 0-1 count:
The Slider was working on all levels for Yu this past Saturday. He threw 14 of them and a whopping 13 of those were strikes. It’s easy to see why when glancing at the reactions from the Pirates who had the misfortune of witnessing the breaking pitch. Right handed hitters were completely defenseless against it. Darvish leaned on the Slider for a couple reasons. It wasn’t getting hit, he was locating it both in the zone to work ahead as well as out of the zone to induce batters to chase, and he was having difficulty finding the feel of his slower Curveball (which he only threw 4 times).
Yu mixed in a cutter 9 times out of his 81 pitches against Pittsburgh. It ran from 89-91mph and he loved to run it in on the hands of lefties. He starts off lefty Matt Joyce with this 89mph Cutter right over the plate for strike one in the second inning:
The best Cutter Yu threw came on his 78th pitch of the night to start things off with John Jaso. Jaso gets completely tied up as the cutting action runs up and in on his hands as he’s unable to hold up:
It’s an interesting pitch for Darvish to mix in and it makes a lot of sense. His Slider has a much more vertical break than most pitchers, meaning he doesn’t really have a pitch that would run away from righties and in on lefties. That’s where his Cutter comes in. It keeps lefties like Jaso from anticipating everything moving either down or away from them. Darvish could throw the Cutter on the outer half to righties to get them to chase when they’re behind as well. He stuck with Sliders to righties and Cutters to lefties for the most part though.
Darvish was unable to get a proper feel for his slow Curveball that typically sits in the 69-72mph with big 12-6 break. He threw it just four times and his only strike with the offering came off a foul ball on a pitch up in the zone to David Freese. This 70mph offering that was left up to John Jaso is a good summary of what his four Curveballs looked like:
It was clearly an “off day” for Darvish’s slow Curveball. We’ve seen him succeed with the pitch in the past and I have no doubt that it will return to form once Yu gets a better feel for it. The good news is that Darvish has an immediate back-up plan in his Slider if the Curveball is ineffective like it was here.
Final line: 5.0 IP, 3 Hits, 1 ER, 1 BBs, 7 Ks, 81 pitches (51 strikes), 11/19 first pitch strikes
After breaking down a handful of young rookies and sophomores that struggle to mix in a third pitch, it was a joy and a pleasure to watch someone like Darvish show off his vast array of pitches in his first game back from surgery. The real beauty of Yu Darvish, as you can see from this start, is his ability to figure out what’s working and drive it home until the opponent proves him otherwise. He has five pitches but only needed three-and-a-half to plow through the Pirates lineup. His Curveball wasn’t working so he moved on and stuck with what worked – the Slider/Sinker combo. If a rookie who has two or maybe three pitches struggles with command of one of those offerings, they’re severely damaged in their effectiveness. For a guy like Yu, not being able to command a pitch or two means he still has three or four that he can choose from. A real headache for any team, but especially for a National League team on the road with very few at-bats against him. His command was also exceptional given the circumstances. He’s a 29-year-old veteran who knows what it’s like to be the ace of a staff on a playoff caliber squad. Darvish appears to be more than ready to get back to his old ways. His craftiness certainly hasn’t left him and the strikeouts should be just as plentiful as they were before his Tommy John surgery. His two main hurdles to clear are building upon his pitch counts to eventually go deeper in games and hopefully improving on his career 3.58 BB/9 ratio. He’s a true maestro on the mound who knows how to get into the minds of hitters and use it to his advantage.
Let’s end this article by watching that jelly-legging of McCutchen one more time:
Ian Post contributes for Pitcher List and grew up on the game of baseball by playing year-round through adolescence and pitching in college before finding his love for writing about the sport. When he isn’t providing down pitching analysis, he can be found faithfully rooting for the Mariners, watching Game of Thrones, and searching for a new favorite IPA in the Pacific Northwest.