Darvish, Verlander, and Buckets of Nerves

“Mentally, I was very calm, but my body felt like it wanted to go and go and go,” Darvish said through his translator. “At the beginning of the game, my mind and my body kind of weren’t on the same page.” — Yu Darvish after his first MLB start

On Monday, I watched with imprisoned eyes as Yu Darvish made his major league debut and did that which many had thought impossible — he walked Chone Figgins.

To say the least, I studied Yu Darvish quite a bit this offseason and was surprised at this seemingly immediate loss of control and command. Some of the hits that followed in that four-run first inning were bloops and seers, but even in the pitches preceding the bad luck, Darvish looked wild — nothing like he looked in Japan or even in the 2012 Spring Training season.

By the third inning, a different man was pitching, a steadier, stronger Darvish. He mowed through the Mariners lineup — while the Mariners pitchers got mowed over by the Rangers — and ended up “winning” the game with 5 ER, 6.2 IP, and raucous applause. Watching the game, I could not help but suspect something more than a rusty start was at hand. Maybe my studies of Darvish and likewise high expectations for him tainted my perception? Maybe the psychological framing of it being his first start in the MLB pushed me to think this, but for my money, Darvish looked nervous.

It’s an unpopular notion to assume nerves play much into baseball — it makes more sense to assume that players at the highest levels of competition (whether it is the MLB or NFL or Premier League) have already proven they can excel under pressure. They must, in fact, excel under pressure or else they cannot get to these top levels. But in this last week, we have seen what may well be two samples of pressure making big impacts.

Darvish settled down after his rough first two innings, but on Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, reigning NL AL* Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander took a complete game shutout bid into the 9th inning only to turn into a facsimile of the worst player in history.

* shut up

Entering the 9th inning with a 2-0 lead, Verlander had thrown only 24 balls to his 57 strikes. Here is a look at his Pitch F/x through the first eight frames:

All Pitch F/x data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

He had a strong concentration of pitches down in the zone and away from the left handers (which often get called strikes by MLB umpires). His pitches high in the zone were hard fastballs and had gone for fouls and swinging strikes.

Up to this point, the Rays had only collected one walk and one hit — a Ben Zobrist single. But in the ninth, pinch hitter Jeff Keppinger dribbled a 1-2 breaking ball back up the middle for a ground ball single. The very next pitch was a 94.8 mph fastball some 2.5 feet off the center of the plate. From there, Verlander’s control got wild:

And his velocity got juiced:

NOTE: This features only the speed of his 53 fastballs (both four and two seamers).

Pitch no. 85 went for a single, and then the radar gun went for a ride. His two-seam and four-seam fastball averaged 93.4 mph through his first 84 pitches, and then 97.9 in his final 13 fastballs.

And after throwing 24 balls out of his first 81 pitches, Verlander then threw 10 balls out his 23 last pitches. Notice my second strikezone plot has a -0.5 ft low end on the y-axis. That’s because his ball-four pitch to Carlos Pena was a 99.5(!) mph fastball he fired into the clay of the batter’s box for a wild pitch.

He then allowed a single (maybe a ground out if Miguel Cabrera is not at third) to Evan Longoria; the Rays tie the game, and then eventually win it 4-2.

Verlander, reasonably, was frustrated after the game:

“I got away from what I’ve been doing all day,” Verlander said. “I’ve been playing to those guys’ aggressiveness, getting them out in front with off-speed stuff. And then I just got away from it there in the ninth for no reason.”

Do nerves effect players in the MLB? Certainly. Without a doubt. Even Tango’s The Book asserts this claim. Can the nerves of one man determine the entire outcome of a single game? Can it have a BIG impact in one game? Not usually, which is what makes this game — and the Yu Darvish game — so interesting.

The Rays-Tigers game was historic for the fact the Detroit Tigers had not lost late in long, long time (“Dating back to opening day 2009, the Tigers held a record of 229-1 when leading after 8 innings.”) — but it was also historic because it featured one of the best pitchers of the era looking like a bucket of nerves. Frustrated, sweating, nervous nerves.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

41 Responses to “Darvish, Verlander, and Buckets of Nerves”

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  1. Clutheran says:

    Pretty amazing that Verlander. Even managed a NL Cy Young award while pitching in the AL.

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  2. ShortShrift says:

    No, no. Verlander was actually just trying to draw Johnny 5 holding a gun with his pitches in the 9th. That’s high-level control right there.

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  3. Ryan says:

    I don’t think JV so much has trouble with nerves as it is him just trying to brute force his way out of trouble. He wants to just pour it in at 100mph, but for some reason he doesn’t make the connection that it costs him control.

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    • I don’t watch Verlander enough to make the suggestion there is a pattern here, but that would certainly be an interesting query to follow.

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      • rea says:

        Oh, this is classic, notorious Verlander behavior. This has been his problem his whole career. He stops pitching and starts throwing 100 mph fastballs. His big breakthrough last year was that he stopped doing this.

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      • bada bing says:

        As rea says, this is almost always the reason that he gets in trouble – he just starts firing 100 MPH fastballs and forgets about everything else.

        Also, I’m not sure why you aren’t watching him pitch more.

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      • Jamie Moyer says:

        I wish I had those problems my whole career.

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      • rea says:

        But note, as Ryan above says, this is not nerves, exactly. This is Verlander’s competitive spirit getting the better of his intellect.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Didn’t we see him “take a up a notch” in the playoffs against ARod in a critical spot with success?

        The idea that Verlander always cranks it up and becomes less effective in important situations could very well be conclusions from selective memories.

        Fans, also, think that LeBron James has never taken, let alone made, a big shot in the 4th quarter.

        I’m not saying Verlander doesn;t “overthrow” himself into trouble here and there, but I’ve also seen him “muscle” his way through jams before, particularly by throwing very hard late in games. So, it’s not a one way street.

        I recall watching games where matt Morris would be throwing very hard in the first inning and we’d think “Oh no, now he’s going to try and throw the ball by everyone”, and sure enough it’d happen a couple of times, and we’d remember those events vividly as if it happened every time.

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      • bada bing says:

        CircleChange11 –

        Of course he has had success in the past by ‘dialing it up’ – he is throwing a 100 MPH. If he can locate his fastball, then he is deadly.

        Your LeBron argument is poor – his numbers do indeed go down in pressure situations. But, yes, he has hit big-time shots in the past.

        However, when Verlander ‘dials it up’, he seems to lose control. I can’t give you any statistical data behind my reasoning, but when it is easy to read JV’s body language – he gets antsy and starts throwing too hard. He starts to shake off every sign until he gets fastball and then pumps it in as fast as he can. He is at his best when he can mix in his change and curve in along with his fastball.

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    • rea says:

      As Verlander himself says, echoed by Leyland (http://www.mlive.com/tigers/index.ssf/2012/04/post_22.html), this is more a matter of pitch selection than simply loss of control at 100 mph. It’s not that he tries to throw too hard, it’s that he forgets to do anything but throw 100 mph To use an old cliche, he starts throwing and stops pitching.

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      • bawfuls says:

        To me, this implies that Leyland (or his pitching coach) is not doing his job properly. The manager should recognize when his pitcher starts doing this, and do something about it. Send the pitching coach out to talk to him, calm him down, remind him to listen to his catcher and not just throw 100 MPH every time. And know the player well enough to know when he is responding to that, and when he isn’t and needs to be pulled from the game.

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  4. Ty says:

    I wouldn’t say Verlander is a bucket of nerves (at least not April-September), I just think he’s trying to be his own ‘closer’. So many people think of the closer as the guy that comes in and powers through the 9th inning, and I think that’s what he tries to do.

    He’s the starter for 8 innings. He’s got movement, command, and a great mix of pitches, but when the 9th inning comes, he tries to close it out. Rather than sticking with what’s worked for 8 innings, he’d rather power through the 9th, which costs him command in the process

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    • Ryan says:

      For what it’s worth, in 14.1 9th innings pitched in his career, JV has given up only 5 ER (4 yesterday), 8.94 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, 3.5 K/BB, 0.541 OPS against, all including yesterdays numbers. Small sample, but that doesn’t look like someone who generally is afraid of the 9th inning.

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      • Good stuff, Ryan. I figured that was probably the case. Just for whatever reason, Verlander lost control on Wednesday.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        No, no no. The data must be wrong. Justin Verlander always overthrows himself into trouble late in the game. People that watch him pitch notice this.

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      • bada bing says:

        Dude – no one said Verlander always overthrows himself into trouble late in the game.

        Also, looking strictly at the 9th inning doesn’t help with the argument here much. It is more about how he pitches in high pressure situations,not necessarily the 9th. At times, he will lose his cool and start gunning fastballs. This is more likely to happen when he loads in the bases in, lets say, the 6th inning as opposed to 9th inning due to the fact he has pitched in the 6th inning many more times than the 9th.

        Verlander rarely overthrows himself into trouble late in the game. The problem lies with him trying to overthrow himself out of trouble late in the game.

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      • Saga says:

        It certainly sounds to me like his “problem of overthrowing to get out of trouble” is being overstated. I assume most already knew that he has been purposely going conservative on his fastball velocity in the first few innings for quite some time now…so once could say he’s actually underthrowing early in games.

        I can’t imagine the “overthrowing” had cost him last year, but perhaps someone can pull out some data to prove otherwise.

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      • Matt says:

        Also what may explain a lack of his command in the 9th is that he hasn’t been used to throwing from the stretch all season. I believe up until that inning he’d only allowed 3 base runners total this season(In 16 innings), and one of them was a double to David Ortiz so he may have still been pitching in the wind up even after that hit. You factor in that, with the fact that this is really the first time he’s been in any trouble this year then that may explain the loss of command.

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  5. hmk says:

    liked this one brad, but it seemed like it was gonna turn into a Darvish analysis at the beginning, and it never came. Not complaining, because verlander blowing up in the 9th was pretty intriguing (also, i have james shields on 2 fantasy teams… and longo, pena, and zobrist all on my $ team). But i would have liked you to analyze darvish’s start more (what kind of pitches he was throwing, how his effectiveness rose after his first inning mishaps). i was concerned when you mentioned how positively you viewed darvish before the season, but that this one start could signal that your analysis of him was incorrect. instead, i think you should back up why your analysis WAS correct, and how this was all just a case of the butterflies. please, tell me why darvish is a stud, cause i want to believe in the guy (his japan numbers are dirty, and he was filthy in the latest WBC)

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    • hmk says:

      obviously i know darvish is a big dude with a variety of pitches who has excellent control and the ability to strike hitters out. i just feel like your analysis of verlander was a little more in depth and im intrigued by darvish so i think some closer analysis of him would be good, too. maybe a prediction for the season or at least his next start?

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    • Yeah, the Darvish bit was meant to be a two-sentence intro, but I kind of failed in that regard.

      I do feel like the Darvish start kind of spoke for itself, though. I may go into detail if he has another bad first inning on Saturday, but the fact that he not only got control, but then dominated the Rangers in subsequent times through the lineup indicated to me that he was off and unlucky in the first inning.

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  6. sprot says:

    “Do nerves effect players in the MLB? Certainly. Without a doubt. Even Tango‚Äôs The Book asserts this claim.”

    Laughed out loud.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I also find it funny that Tango’s book is used as evidence that being nervous can negatively affect performance … as if the field of psychology and/or physiology wasn’t enough … or if everyone didn’t know this from their own personal experience.

      I thought nervousness actually made one perform better … until I read the opposite in tango’s book. Note: Most know I’m a huge fan of TT’s blog and book … so I’m not ridiculing Tango in any way, nor am I insulting the author of the article … just poking fun at a funny thing to say.

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  7. everdiso says:

    Romero had a similar start as Verlander’s, against the Red Sox yesterday – dominated all game long then suddenly went completely wild in the 9th, even though he was only on 90 pitches.

    Farrell had a quicker hook than Leyland, though, and took Ricky out after 3 hitters, instead of 6, and Santos rewarded his aggressive hook with the solid save.

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  8. DD says:

    Interesting stuff. Especially that one walk and one hit equals a Ben Zobrist. This should be added to the Glossary for immediate use.

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  9. NEPP says:

    Nerves might explain Verlander’s 5.50ish ERA in 8 post-season starts…

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    • Eric Cioe says:

      Or maybe the fact that half of those came in his rookie year, when he wasn’t exactly a Cy Young level guy, and the fact that he got jerked around by bad weather decisions in 2011.

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  10. JwB says:

    Apparently Yu Darvish has bad starts in his first game of the season. In 2011 he allowed 7 runs in his first game and didn’t allow more than 4 in a game the rest of the season, and in 2010 he allowed 5 in the first game and not more than 5 the rest of the season, so we will see how that compares to the rest of this season, not saying this comparison will hold up the rest of the season.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    Here’s my point …

    If Verlander is not successful in the 9th, regardless of method, he’ll be second guessed.

    If he was missing his spots with his curve and offspeed then we’d be saying “Why is a guy capable of throwing 100mph fastballs farting around with offspeed when he’s pitching a gem in the 9th?”

    That exact scenario happened to David Price the other day on a 3-2 changeup.

    Verlander was not successful using his fastball in the 9th, when he’s usually dominant in the 9th, so now we have to construct a narrative of a singular situation, even though much of the data shows the opposite.

    Broadcasters and casual fans are fond of saying “you gotta go with your best pitch” and “don’t get beat on 2nd or 3rd best pitch” and then when pitchers get beat on their best pitch, then they revert to the “duh, you gotta mix it up”.

    Verlander does not have a very good “clutch” score over his career. Very good WPAA numbers, not so good clutch numbers. This could be because he “puckers up” or because he tries to throw too hard or even because his manager leaves him in the game for far too long many times. For Starting Pitchers, the only times they really get into high LI situations are late in the game.

    Again, my point is Verlander’s gonna hear it no matter what if he’s not successful in the 9th inning of that game. No matter what did, well he shoulda did the opposite.

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  12. What’s being referred to as “nerves” might be better identified as “adrenaline”.

    It’s much easier to calm the mind than it is the body. The body seems to operate subconsciously in flight or fight (tense) situations. Sometimes no amount of thinking or deep breathing can relax a body that feels like it wants to run through a wall. This is where baseball is a bit different in that adrenaline isn’t always a good thing. The body operates skill based activities best when it’s relaxed.

    I have no clue how to get the body to relax. It was something I could never do.

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  13. JG says:

    Verlander almost did the same thing today. He got into trouble with some base hits and then completely lost his control. This time, however, he struck out Gordon to end it on five pitches (over 130 total for the night!). Four of those were 100 mph, while the other was a changeup.

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