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.