Yu Darvish's First Season Of Pitches

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

A PITCHf/x look at Yu Darvish's rookie year, and how it compared to the rest of the league.

As we hit the doldrums of the MLB off-season, we are short on interesting topics for the Texas Rangers at the time being. The future is kind of nebulous, and most of the options have already been covered; it is just a matter of waiting and seeing who Texas installs in to their 2013 roster. The recent past is not particularly fun to continue to rehash, either.

So let's talk about Yu Darvish!

There has now been one full season of Yu Darvish pitching in American League parks, in front of PITCHF/x cameras, so we can now take a look at how his repertoire shapes up beyond just eye test and anecdote. The results are actually pretty fun.

Like most pitchers, Darvish's most frequently-thrown pitch was his four-seam fastball. Typically, of course, establishing your basic fastball for strikes to get ahead in the count allows you force hitters to go after secondary pitches, and Darvish's approach was no different. In fact, even with his vast array of pitches, he threw about as many heaters as the average MLB starter: 31.5% of the time for Darvish, against 32.9% for MLB.

That fastball came in about a tick higher than MLB average, sitting just under 93 miles per hour, and topping 97. What was not average was the amount of horizontal movement Darvish got, with his four seamer coming in nearly two inches further on righties than the average MLB pitcher's. That movement may have been a bit of a curse through the middle part of the year, where Darvish struggled to get ahead in counts. A shifter fastball must certainly be harder to throw for a strike, and until he figured out where to put that pitch at the start of at bats, he struggled to keep his walk totals down. His four seamer also failed to garner more than a slightly-above-average 8.9% swinging strike rate.

5064332012030120121126aaafavirtualization-top_medium

via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

It gets more fun from here, though. His two-seam fastball actually resulted in a swinging strike just 8.1% of the time, but it made up for it elsewhere. The average MLB pitcher used a two-seamer 14% of the time in 2012. Darvish pulled it out at least 17.3% of the time.

The other fastball was nearly as quick as the standard selection, which made it a serious weapon compared to the rest of the league, where it averages 90 mph. Not only was their a rocket engine behind the pitch, but it moved ridiculously. While the average MLB two-seamer was moving just under an inch horizontally, Darvish was moving his two seamer more than eight inches, as well as dropping it around an inch more than MLB average. Remember when we all thought he might be throwing a shuuto?

That ridiculous pitch wasn't getting a lot of swing and misses, but it did get a ground ball more than half the time contact was made (52.4% to be exact). While his other delicious secondary pitches were punching people out, his two-seam was getting people to roll over pitches in to harmless in play outs.

5064332012030120121126aaaftvirtualization-top_medium

via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com

Every pitch after those was completely nasty. The Major Leagues don't see a lot of splitters anymore, with starters throwing them just just over once in every 100 pitches. Yu Darvish, however, busted his out around once in every twenty offerings, and it was awesome when he did. The splitter was the first in a trio of pitches getting hitters to whiff (often hilariously) just over 11% of the time, and fairly strong measure of pitch effectiveness.

We saw a power split finger fastball, averaging around 87 mph, or three miles faster than MLB (which was skewed by Darvish himself, most likely). As a result, it actually had slightly less overall movement than average, but with that power the break was sharp and late. The result was a ground ball nearly two-thirds of the time it was connected with. Again, on top of a pitch that no one connected with. If you were in the Lone Star Ball Game Day Threads when he broke out one of those ~161 splitters, you saw a general reaction to a thing of beauty. PITCHf/x just puts a cool number on that beauty.

Also getting a whiff more than 11% of the time (actually closer to 12%) was the cutter. Once again, Darvish used a secondary pitch more than the rest of baseball, throwing cutters 17% of the time, compared to an average of 6%. Similar to the splitter, when (rarely) hitters did manage to connect, the result was more often than not a ground ball (55% of the time), resulting in a BABIP of just over .200.

As is a theme with most of his pitches, the break was ridiculous on this thing, at more than an inch and a half further than average horizontally, with less vertical drop; a pitch that stayed up and broke hard, in a way. The two inches of horizontal movement and 6.5 inches of vertical (higher being more "rise") is actually very similar to the recorded career of Mariano Rivera's cutter: 2.2 and 7.1. Not to claim Darvish has a Rivera cutter just based on how PITCHf/x says they move, but that is at least interesting. It worked.

Unfortunately, his curve ball is not geared for PITCHf/x's ability to detect nuance. Darvish's curve and its break of just under nine inches was not too far ahead of MLB average, but that is because we know he really has two curves: a loopy cartoon thing, and a power curve. The velocity on the pitch records range from 62 mph to 83, all because of the two varieties. That, unfortunately, makes comparing to to MLB rates useless. The two pitches did result in a swinging strike more than 11% of the time.


That total is half of what the other breaking pitch accomplished, though. Darvish's slider, at just over 18%, registered "only" about five percentage points ahead of MLB selection average. It was his second most used pitch, though, and for good reason. At 81.6 against an 83.5 average, his slider was actually relatively slow (by recorded data). Of course, it moved more. A lot more. With more than four times the average horizontal break, at 8.1 inches, and with more sink to boot.

That resulted in a monster. With a stunning 22% swinging strike rate suggests it was -- by far -- his hardest pitch to hit. It even managed to get ground balls just over half the time contact was made, too!

Look at how long this piece is, just briefly talking about each pitch in one guy's repertoire. How are you supposed to guess against that?

That question is probably how a 25 year old getting his first taste of Major League Baseball had horrible control problems for a significant portion of the season, and yet still managed to tie the Cy Young Winner for fourth in Wins Above Replacement on FanGraphs.

The point of talking about the pitches is not just to emphasize why Darvish is good, though. We already know he is. It is, instead, to talk about what makes him special. Not in terms of value -- that's great, of course -- but how he does it. He does it with these eye-popping video game pitches, with movement that does not even seem possible. Where the fifth and sixth pitches down the list don't look like anything the rest of the league can muster. He might be the most electric thing ever to take a mound in Texas, and that includes that guy with a Rangers hat on his Cooperstown plaque.

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