Yu Darvish debuted yesterday. His first pitch registered 95 MPH and the flashbulbs popped. Then things went south in Texas.
Four singles, three walks, a wild pitch, and 42 combined pitches later, his first inning finally went into the books. With it went much of the mania surrounding his arrival in the states. Was this pitcher, despite being about 50% better relative to the Japanese league than the last great Japanese import, going to suffer the same control problems that plagued Daisuke Matsuzaka before him? Was he a nibbler without an out pitch?
At the risk of being an apologist, even in this small sample there were mitigating factors.
For one, the platoon advantage was in full effect for the Mariners. They loaded their lineup with left-handers to counter the debuting righty — Miguel Olivo and Brendan Ryan were the only righties on the Mariners’ card to begin the game. Though Darvish has a large repertoire, his best pitches, or his ‘out’ pitches if you will, are his two sliders. We know that sliders have a platoon split. Even if still managed to throw 20 sliders by the end of the game (eight in the first inning), it’s possible that the pitch had a reduced efficacy against the southpaw-laden lineup.
There may have been some luck at play in that first inning. Sure, a few of the balls were hit hard, and Darvish deserved his fate on those hits. But Ichiro Suzuki dumped a ball in the outfield just a step past a converging Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus, and Olivo was fooled on a ball and still poked it to shallow right. Turn those singles into outs and things would have gone a little differently.
Darvish still walked four batters in his 5.2 innings. 59 of his 111 pitches (53.2%) were strikes, and that would have been below average last year in the AL (63.2%). It did seem like the Ranger had lost the zone.
A five-pitch sequence late in the first inning might provide us a window into the thought process of an accomplished pitcher trying to learn the peculiarities of a new strike zone.
Darvish threw five straight high fastballs at one point. All five were called balls. Munenori Kawasaki, who had trouble with Darvish back in Japan, was content to watch four of them into the catcher’s mitt. But, obstinacy aside, those pitches were still remarkable. Take a look at a picture of his pitches from the first inning (left) compared to a plot of all his pitches (right). Take particular notice of pitches that would be high and tight to a left-hander, and you’ll probably see those five pitches clustered together:
That bit of hard-headedness takes a turn when you look at how he avoided the spot later in the game. According to Patrick Newman of NBPTracker.com, the high fastball “got him swinging strikes” in Japan. If it was a weapon in Japan, Darvish would have wanted to use it in America. In order to get the batters to swing at it, however, he would have needed to get a strike call on at least one of those high fastballs. Unfortunately, Paul Nauert was behind the plate. Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman’s BaseballHeatMaps.com, we can see that he was not the man to be tempted by those high and tight fastballs to a left-handed hitter (blue means fewer strike calls than league average):
Darvish may have been locating those fastballs there repeatedly in order to show the umpire he was locating them there on purpose. The umpire returned the favor by refusing to make the call. Once Darvish knew he wasn’t going to get that pitch, he adjusted and pitched lower in the zone for the most part.
It wasn’t a stellar debut, and Yu Darvish walked too many batters. He still garnered ten swinging strikes on 111 pitches, for a 9% swinging strike rate that would have been a top-40 number among qualified starters last year. He settled down after a poor first inning and battled through a tough day. His team won. Most importantly, he certainly learned more about the American strike zone, and what sort of strategies he will have to employ when faced with lefty-heavy lineups in the future. It wasn’t a stellar debut, but it was a step forward.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.