August 13, 2008

There's a lot of excitement in baseball regarding a half Iranian, Half Japanese pitcher named Yu Darvish, and with good reason.  He's probably the best pitcher in the world who's not already in the big leagues.  Currently, he is 11-4 with a 2.06 ERA and 0.9892 WHIP in Japan, striking out an average of 8.615 batters per nine innings.  By comparison, Daisuke Matsuzaka was 17-5 in his final season in Japan, with a 2.13 ERA, 0.923 WHIP and 9.66 K/9.  Darvish is on a similar track to Matsuzaka, just 21 years old and pitching in his fourth season.  Matsusaka left after 8 seasons at the age of 25.  Anyway, there was much ado about him renouncing his dual citizenship in order to pitch for the Japanese national Olympic team.  I was happy about it because it meant I got to watch him pitch well before he becomes a major leaguer.

I gotta tell you - there's a lot to like about him because he's plenty impressive on the mound.  He has the kind of tall and lean body that scouts like to see in pitchers and he hides the ball well in his delivery.  During his match-up against Cuba his fastball was generally in the 90-94 range and topped out at 98.  His slider, curve and change looked pretty good, enough to be strikeout pitches in the majors.  And he never gave in to hitters when he got behind in the count or got into a tough situation. 

Unfortunately, though, that happened a lot.  He was all over the place from the beginning, missing the zone wide, high and low and rarely got ahead of the hitters.  He pitched only four innings plus two batters and in that span threw more than 90 pitches.  Seven times he threw at least 5 pitches to a batter.  Given that Carribbean players are not known for the patience at the plate, that is a bad sign.  And when he did manage to hit the strikezone, a number of his pitches were right in the fat part of batter's swing zone.  The score could have been much worse as two of the balls the Cubans hit just missed going out by less than a foot.  Another bad sign is that the velocity on his fastball went from 90-94 during the first three innings to 87-88 in the fourth and fifth inning. 

However, I think all of his troubles can be explained by one of two numbers; 165 is the first.  I know you are going to cringe when I tell you, but that was the number of pitches he threw in his last start on July 24 before the Japanese All-Star break.  Whoever his manager is should probably be fired for incompetence, especially considering Darvish wasn't pitching well in that game, surrendering 11 hits, 5 walks and 5 runs.  Even before that outing, he was sporting a fairly heavy workload, averaging more than 116 pitches per outing.  That sounds extremely heavy by American standards but Darvish has generally had 5 or 6 days rest between starts, unlike American pitchers who usually only have 4 or 5.  But 165 is simply unforgivable given the extensive research that has been done the last decade on workloads and their relationship to breakdowns.

The other number is not nearly as nefarious: 19.  That's how many days off he's had since his last start with the exception of two innings he threw in his All-Star Game outing.  So part of his wildness could be attributed to just being rusty.  That doesn't explain his sudden drop in velocity mid-game but it does make sense that he'd have some trouble locating his pitches after such a long lay-off.

That said, I'm still buying Darvish as an impact pitcher in the big leagues once he's posted.  There have been a number of pitchers who have thrown 150+ pitches in a game and still survived.  Kerry Wood, for example, threw that many in a high school championship game and did not show any lingering effects through the first three years of his minor league career.  He might still be a starter in the big leagues had Jim Riggleman and Dusty Baker not rode his arm into oblivion once he reached the majors.  Sandy Koufax was said to have thrown that many pitches in a game several times during his stellar career.  Maybe those two guys aren't the best examples as both had their careers altered by arm injuries.  But I suspect their injuries are much more due to heavy workloads over a significant span of time than to one outing.  Throwing that many pitches is not by any means a good thing, but I don't believe it is necessarily a career ender.  It is, however, something to keep an eye on.  Just like Darvish.

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