There is always something interesting about a Yu Darvish start. That's why I have written something, or many things about each one this season. There is no shortage of material, and every bit of it is worth examining. At the very least, it has been more educational to dissect Darvish starts than it was to dissect that frog in 9th grade Biology.
Darvish starts also always have an elevated expectation level associated with them, because he is capable of an outstanding achievement or two every time out. In his last start in Cleveland, Darvish limited the Indians to one run over seven innings, with just six baserunners allowed while striking out eight. It was one of Darvish's better starts of the year, and the fourteenth time he's pitched into the seventh inning in twenty-one starts. Were it not for a couple of doubles in the second inning, the Indians struggled to square up on Darvish the entire game. But due to the elevated expectations for the Rangers' Ace, that outstanding start is seemingly considered to be 'average' for Darvish. But even in an 'average' Yu Darvish start, we can find something interesting.
Three things stood out from this particular Darvish start, beyond just the box score line. The first note of some importance is fittingly the first inning. Darvish worked a perfect 1-2-3 inning on 11 pitches, nine of which went for strikes, with one strikeout. In four starts since the All-Star Break, Darvish has thrown 12, 11, 9, and 11 pitches in the first inning, allowing just one first-inning baserunner over those four games. Prior to the break, Darvish had been averaging 18.1 pitches in the first inning. He has very suddenly begun attacking hitters in the first inning, with very positive results. As a result, obviously Darvish is not only in a better position to pitch deeper into the game, but he can also more quickly attain some level of comfort with what pitches are working and adjust his approach for that day.
The next takeaway from this game for Darvish was the fourth inning. Darvish threw 14 pitches, all of which were for strikes, getting a flyout and two strikeouts. In this one inning, Darvish threw his four-seam fastball (4), slider (6), curveball (2), cutter (1), and sinker (1) for strikes. These five pitches are all that Darvish has thrown since the All-Star Break, having scrapped the splitfinger and change-up for now. And in this perfect fourth inning, Darvish threw all of them.
The last batter in that fourth inning was Nick Swisher, and Poor Nick Swisher is the last takeaway from this game. In three appearances against Darvish, Swisher collected a hat trick with three swinging strikeouts. In all three at-bats, Darvish started Swisher with a fastball and finished him with breaking pitches. Swisher looked completely overmatched. In total, Darvish had 14 swinging strikes on the day, and six of those were from Swisher in these three at-bats.
For visual evidence of Swisher's futility against Darvish on this day, here is a GIF of all three strikeouts, as Swisher tries and fails to come close to a Darvish breaking ball:
Last week we talked about how Darvish can use the second half of this season to experiment with how he wants to pitch to find his groove, and though that was based on just two-and-a-half starts after the All-Star Break, that approach from Darvish held true in this start as well. Cleveland hitters were off-balance, as Darvish went to a breaking ball often and in any count. This helped him to throw 70 of 101 pitches for strikes, but also to throw more quality strikes. The little trouble he did get into was on fastballs that tailed into or were left up in hitter's zones, but because he changed speeds and eye levels so often he also got away with several similar fastballs.
Since the All-Star Break, Darvish has pitched 25 innings, and has allowed 23 hits and six walks with a 2.16 ERA, while striking out 33 (5.5 SO/BB ratio). It's not the greatest run of starts he has had in his career, but he's been dominant. Of the six runs he's allowed, four of them were solo home runs, so he's been a little unlucky there but has been very good at limiting damage.
In 2012, Darvish finished the last eight games of the year, beginning in mid-August, with a 2.35 ERA. In 2013, Darvish had a 2.59 ERA after the All-Star Break. Like many of Darvish's starts, there appears to be a pattern developing in which Darvish works through a 'feeling out' period to determine what works, makes adjustments, and is dominant for long stretches of time. If that trend continues this season as it has the last two, we may continue to see a very dominant Yu Darvish until only the end of the season can stop him.