Everyone knows the 2014 season is over for the Texas Rangers, and has been for some time. This very healthy franchise was struck with a uniquely unhealthy season, and they are more of a Shakespearean tragedy or punch line than a competitor. Along with the Houston Astros, the Rangers are one of two American League teams whose playoff odds (according to Baseball Prospectus) have flat-lined at 0.0 percent.
The annual challenge for the Rangers to grab August headlines over Dallas Cowboys training camp has begun again, but with far less ammunition for the Rangers this year. Both nationally and locally, interest in the Rangers has gone into hibernation along with their shot at the playoffs, to be awakened anew next spring. The average attendance for Rangers home games through 54 games in 2014 is down nine percent from the same point in time in 2013 and down eighteen percent from the first 54 games of 2012. And those numbers looked worse before Derek Jeter's farewell tour just rolled through town.
It's not just the fans that are struggling to get invested in the club in 2014, it affects the players too. During the All-Star Break, Yu Darvish spoke on this candidly through an interpreter:
'It's really hard to motivate myself, especially with the team in the situation that we're in,' Darvish said. 'People lack focus sometimes when they're in this situation. But as a professional baseball player, I have to do whatever I have to do.'
I have to do whatever I have to do.
It's possible something was lost in translation, but one could interpret this statement two ways. On the one hand, this could be a discouraging statement from Darvish that he himself is depressed about the state of the Rangers and it is impacting his performance. But on the other hand, it's possible that Darvish doing whatever he has to do means he's going to have himself a bit of fun in the second half of the year.
I imagine Darvish using the All-Star Break as an opportunity for an actual break to reflect on and reassess his goals for the year. With winning the World Series out of the picture, the focus has been shifted to what he can do to get better for next year. That may lead to some experimentation, and Darvish has already shown that he is willing to do things differently in his three starts since the break.
For example, Darvish has yet to throw a splitter or a change-up since the All-Star Break. He had been throwing six or seven per game, and now has put it on the shelf entirely.
He has also been far more liberal with the use of his breaking pitches (slider and curve), throwing them more often and in any count. Here is a chart comparing Darvish's pitch usage in the first half of the season, and in his starts since the All-Star Break:
You can see the big changes in how frequently he throws his breaking pitches, going from 23 percent sliders to 38 percent, and from three percent curves to 10 percent. Overall, Darvish is relying less on his four-seam fastball recently, has significantly reduced his cutter usage and has cut out the splitter entirely.
The biggest change in when Darvish is throwing these breaking pitches is in the first two pitches of an at-bat, on 0-0, 0-1, or 1-0 counts, as you can see here:
Since the All-Star Break, Darvish has thrown breaking pitches on 55 percent of the first three pitches of an at-bat. Before the All-Star Break, hitters had an 82 percent chance of seeing some kind of fastball in those early counts. Some view this as pitching backwards, and use that term like it is some sort of dirty word, but it certainly keeps hitters on their toes. And for Darvish, it seems to work.
Interestingly, Darvish's four-seam fastball and slider usage after the All-Star Break has been exactly the same as what he averaged during the 2013 season. Here is one last chart, comparing 2013 to Darvish's last few starts:
While the high frequency of sliders thrown is somewhat concerning for Darvish's health in the long run, that seems to be the zone in which Darvish is most comfortable. In his last start at home against the Yankees, Darvish threw 36 sliders, 30 of which were strikes. That was the main driver in him throwing 80 of his 108 pitches for strikes, a career-best 74 percent strike rate in a game. His previous career best was his first start of 2014, when he threw 73 percent strikes at Tampa Bay.
There was one stretch of the game against New York on Monday night in which Darvish threw four of his slow curveballs in a row, all registering under 70 miles per hour. That is a kind of boldness Darvish doesn't usually show with the curveball. In fact, Darvish had never thrown two in a row in a start this year before then. But even after the fourth one, the Yankees hitters couldn't do much with it, and then they had to get ready for the 95 MPH fastball that followed on the next pitch.
Perhaps the most fun fact from Darvish's last outing is this: Darvish set a new career high by hitting a total of 30 different speeds on the radar gun, ranging from 63 MPH to 96 MPH.
Darvish has been prone to the long ball since the All-Star Break, with Brett Gardner hitting three off of him in his two outings against New York. He has allowed four home runs in three starts, which is equal to the number of walks he has issued. However, he has also struck out 25 in 18 innings since the All-Star break, giving him a 6.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is excellent and is more encouraging than the increased home run totals are discouraging.
Just like the Texas Rangers franchise in general, Darvish is looking at the lost season of 2014 not as a reason to give up, but as an opportunity to figure out what works and re-tool for 2015 and beyond. He's turned 'I have to do whatever I have to do' into more than just finding a way to stay focused and motivated. Darvish broke the mold of what a Japanese pitcher looks like. And now he's looking to break his own mold again. The rest of this season is a failure-free sandbox, and Darvish is starting to show us some new things that he can do with all of his sandbox tools.