Marwin Gonzalez earned his hit to break up Yu Darvish‘s perfect game last night. Darvish left a 90 MPH four-seam fastball out over the plate, and Gonzalez hit it hard back up the middle, just under Darvish’s glove. It was a mistake pitch. It was the only one from the 26-year-old Darvish last night in Houston.
For 26 batters, Darvish carved through the Astros lineup in his best start since his much-anticipated MLB debut last season. The 6-foot-5 righty struck out 14 of those 26 before Gonzalez finally managed to reach base safely. Darvish created lofty expectations with a tremendous run in his last eight starts of 2012 — 57.1 innings with a 2.35 ERA and 67-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio — and the adjustments he made late last year were present in his masterpiece last night.
Geovany Soto caught Darvish for the first time on August 11th last season, the first of Darvish’s final eight starts last season. Darvish’s approach changed immediately. The cutter became a primary weapon — after throwing it just 12 percent of the time in his first 21 starts, he unleashed it 31 percent of the time in the final eight. And, most striking to me, Darvish made a concerted effort to attack hitters inside.
Observe the following heatmap, in which darker green areas represent those with more pitches thrown (lightest shades indicate one percent of all pitches or less; darkest indicate seven percent of all pitches or more)
These maps are adjusted for handedness to show a universal inside and outside for both lefties and righties. As such, we can see how Darvish was much more inclined to throw inside — particularly middle-in or low-in — later in the season. Pitchers avoid this area for good reason — hitters often make the most powerful contact on inside pitches, and Darvish was no different last year. But Darvish’s ability to draw swings and misses, nearly unmatched, allows him to attack inside yet in the strike zone. The result was fewer deep counts for Darvish, fewer walks, longer starts, and more outs, both on the strikeout or in play.
The adjustments Darvish made under Soto held under new Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski‘s watch Tuesday night. Darvish was cutter-heavy as ever Tuesday night, as he threw 49 (44.5 percent of pitches) to Astros hitters against just 19 fastballs. Darvish’s slider will always be his most breathtaking pitch — its movement is nothing short of art, and Darvish recording 10 swinging strikeouts off it Tuesday night merely adds to its stature — but the cutter is his foundation. Of the 49 cutters Darvish threw, 39 were strikes; of those 30 strikes, just nine were even put in play. Hitters can at least foul off Darvish’s cutter, but are merely setting themselves up for execution by slider.
And Darvish was both aggressive and effective on the inner third of the plate. Darvish came inside — on the inner third of the plate or off the plate inside — 27 times, roughly the same rate as in his final eight starts of 2012. Darvish drew swinging strikes on a third of these pitches and drew four outs on as many balls in play (two groundouts, two lineouts). Darvish busted lefties inside in particular — he threw 18 of his 69 pitches to left-handers inside (26 percent, against 21 percent total) and recorded 14 strikes, six swinging strikes, and all four of the aforementioned outs in play. Left-handed hitters finished 1-for-18 with eight strikeouts on the night.
MLB.com writer and former professional scout Bernie Pleskoff saw Darvish at the World Baseball Classic in 2009. Pleskoff later wrote of the performance, “In reality, he looked like a thrower and not a pitcher at that early stage of his career.” In the same article, published just days before Darvish took the mound in his first MLB regular season game, Pleskoff noted, “lefties have a better and longer look at the ball, and to my observation, they see pitches that allow them to extend their arms and drive the ball. Darvish’s pitches to lefties seem to move into the hitting zone. The righty-lefty differential is one that opposing teams may expose and exploit.”
Scouts and others inside baseball constantly reference the idea of “learning how to pitch.” Not everything that gets a pitcher through the minors — or the NPB, in Darvish’s case — will work against the best hitters in the world in the major leagues. There is a necessary refinement for all pitchers, whether their fastball tops out at 87 or 97 (as Darvish’s did Tuesday night).
Darvish’s repertoire has been as sharp as any pitcher in the league since he arrived, but he needed to refine his approach against lefties. Whereas his power could overwhelm left-handed hitters in NPB, MLB lefties can handle a 97 MPH fastball or a 94 MPH cutter when it is left over the plate. The one pitch he finally paid for, after all, was a fastball he left on the outer third to a lefty.
Throwing inside more often and not allowing lefties to extend and hit for power was Darvish’s refinement, and through it he became less thrower and more pitcher. Yes, Darvish overmatched the Astros and their poor lineup on Tuesday night. But to credit his near-perfection to his stuff and the Astros’ incompetence alone misses the giant steps Darvish has taken to improve his tactics and his execution.
Between the ruthlessness of Yu Darvish’s approach and the beauty of his seemingly endless arsenal of pitches, there lies the now ever-present possibility — and nearly-manifested reality — of perfection.