Two Strikes Against Yu Darvish
I’ve seen Darvish pitch in person.
The skills are there, and the size is there. Hell, the mystique is even there.
But, two things would concern me if I were a scout for a major league club. Firstly, his demeanor and poise as a pitcher. And secondly, the sheer amount of innings and pitches that his Japanese team let’s him throw. These are things that I know the Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers and New York Yankees know already. But maybe they will shed some insight for the Kansas City Royals. (if they are even interested in what happens in the Darvish sweepstakes.)
I am a big believer in the mound presence of a pitcher. Think about what Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens could do to a batter before a pitch was ever thrown. Think about Randy Johnson, all twelve feet of him, hiding behind his glove, only the whites of his eyes and his foot long mullet waving ‘adios’ to would be batters. The stare down is the first act of any duel. The pitcher vs batter is no different.
So where does Darvish fall in the range of mound presence? The first act of Darvish’s mound game gets a C-. Far too often Darvish looks distracted, irritated and bored on the mound. When was the last time you can remember a World Series pitcher displaying any of these qualities.
Your mound demeanor is a reflection of your mentality. If you are hungry, and want it bad, it shows. And it can be intimidating. It can create uncertainty that leads to weak swings and a passive attack in the box. If you are just floating through, dominating inferior talent, a big fish in a small pond, you might look a little like Yu Darvish does right now.
The major leagues will demand that Yu develop some sort of gamesmanship and intimidation on the mound. It’s all a part of what gives a pitcher his power over the hitter. You need the mental edge, and that can often start with thinking about what the hitter sees when he looks out at you, first sizing you up.
Darvish has the physicality to have a damn intimidating mound presence. He is tall, well built and has a cool pitcher’s mane. (I won’t call it a mullet, but I think he can use it to a more stylish effect than the Big Unit did.) He just needs to ditch the ‘what are we waiting for, get back in the box’ look and expressions. Stay focused. We know you like to work fast Mr. Darvish, but a well focused stare down can convey your preference as well as those eye rolls and shoulders shrugs you’re dropping now.
The second criticism falls to his Japanese team managers and coaches. Excessive pitch and inning count. Unacceptable. It’s not uncommon for Darvish to throw 150 pitches in a meaningless regular season game. That is a coaching travesty.
I read a quote from Yu’s alleged pitching coach once who claimed that he never approached Darvish or gave him any instructions, because Darvish was a far better pitcher than this gentleman ever was. I think this is a Japanese sport culture thing. If someone is above you, you can’t talk to them. And as a result, Darvish is logging astounding inning counts. For what?
Japanese baseball is notorious for burning players arms out at every level. Little league and high school teams frequently have ONE PITCHER, and they are called upon to throw every game. This is unthinkable in the American game, where preservation and safety are primary concerns. In Japan, players are expected not to complain, and play honorably, without proper rest, on sore arms. I will call this out as old fashioned and something that I hope can be re-evaluated soon.
The question for Darvish then becomes, how will he react to having a pitching coach in the major leagues who will give him many instructions and guidance. This will be the first time that the iconic Japanese-Iranian ace will have been subjected to legitimate coaching. Notoriously self-taught, and to spectacular effect, Darvish will have to cope with criticism for the first time in his baseball life. It is bound to have some sort of effect. Perhaps it will unlock even more hidden potential in Darvish. Or perhaps he will respond childishly and refuse to adapt. There is no telling.
But the most concerning thing has been the amount of pitches and innings he has been allowed to throw. He should be subjected to a pitch count immediately. The major league season is substantially longer and more demanding than the Japanese professional leagues, where pitches throw only one game a week, giving them a kind of quarterback rhythm and mentality to approaching their weekly game day.
In the majors, Darvish will have to tap into a yet-to-be formed mound etiquette and demeanor. The bored rock star thing won’t go over well in the Bronx or even the SkyDome. He will have to mature how he responds to balls and strikes, teammates’ errors and all the other little hiccups a pitcher faces during the course of a game. Darvish will have to display his professional, mentally tough side. If he does that, the wins and losses will speak for themselves.