Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 13

I'm going to cut and paste the intro to Darvish Watch: Episode 12 because it's appropriate once again this time around. Here you go:

"Greetings again Darvish Watch fans. I'd like to start today with a little quiz. What is the key to a Yu Darvish victory in 2007? Answer: a good first inning. We've followed this exciting young pitcher's ascent into the lofty heights of pitching royalty in Japan, pitching stellar complete games, striking out batters in the double digits, and looking the part of the matinee idol while doing it. What he hasn't done much is come out guns blazing in the first inning to retire the side cleanly."

Do you remember that? Good. Here's a rundown of Darvish's first inning from June 23rd against Hanshin.

Takahiro Shouda - WALK
Norihiro Akahoshi - DOUBLE TO RIGHT
Tomoaki Kanemoto - 3 RUN HOME RUN
Makoto Imaoka - SWINGING K
Takashi Toritani - WALK
Akihiro Yano - 4-6-3 DOUBLE PLAY

Just like that 4-0 Hanshin. I'll let you in on a little secret. The final score of this game was 6-4 Nippon Ham in 11 innings. Once again the only damage to Yu Darvish was a first inning meltdown. I promise you that I will provide a recap soon with numbers from his first innings compared with the numbers from all other innings pitched. It will be a stark contrast, and will go a long way to showing why Darvish has room to grow. Why does this keep happening? I have a theory.

I believe that Darvish is both immature and overconfident at times. He is so dominant that he has fallen for his own image a bit. This year, after winning the Japan Series and the Konami Asia Cup, Darvish appeared with dyed brown hair and a little swagger on the mound. His numbers show that he has earned that swagger, but I think it manifests itself negatively in the first inning. He's too pumped up and too sure of himself. His focus is poor and he overthrows. Most of the time, the meltdowns are a simple matter of a hafl centimeter here and a quarter of a centimeter there. His control is just off enough that he falls behind, walks the leadoff man, and then gets into trouble with good professional hitters waiting on a straight fastball. Just like that a few runs are on the board. If I were his manager, I'd make him throw 2 simulated innings prior to the next start to wear him out just a bit. Work him in the pen and then bring him out a little winded.

Better focus comes with each successive inning, and Darvish managed to go the rest of the game allowing 6 baserunners over 8 innings. The pen took over in the 10th, and got the win in the 11th. Darvish pitched to 2 batters over the minimum from the 3rd inning until the end of the 9th. He struck out 11 Tigers on the day, but was a victim of another rocky start. It's the second consecutive game that he's walked 5 batters and control seems to have eluded the young ace. We'll be watching again this weekend to see if he can conquer the demons that have plagued him at the start of ballgames. Click below to enlarge current stats:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 12

Greetings again Darvish Watch fans. I'd like to start today with a little quiz. What is the key to a Yu Darvish victory in 2007? Answer: a good first inning. We've followed this exciting young pitcher's ascent into the lofty heights of pitching royalty in Japan, pitching stellar complete games, striking out batters in the double digits, and looking the part of the matinee idol while doing it. What he hasn't done much is come out guns blazing in the first inning to retire the side cleanly. In recent weeks, I've given you the lowdown on Darvish's first innings, batter by batter, to illustrate his struggles. I'll do the same today.

Hirokazu Ibata (pop out to 2nd)
Hidenori Kuramoto (strike out - runner advances to 1st on passed ball)
Masahiko Morino (walk)
Kosuke Fukudome (RBI double to center)
Kazuki Inoue (walk)
Koji Nakamura (fly out to right)
Motonobu Tanishige (bases loaded RBI walk)
Michihisa Sawai (looking K)

Yes, a little bad luck led to the first baserunner, but I have to tell you that Darvish was straight awful for the better part of the early innings. He had nothing on any of his pitches and very little control. The three walks in this inning are enough to illustrate that, and the final walk to Tanishige that accounted for the second run came on four pitches, none of which was close. Tanishige is a .242 hitter with a .315 OBP and a grand total of 8 extra base hits in 191 plate appearances. You cannot walk that kind of hitter, let alone force in a run on four pitches.

I'll add to the severity of this situation by telling you that the Chunichi starter was Kenshin Kawakami, former Rookie of the Year(1998), Sawamura Award winner(2004), and currently the highest paid pitcher in Japan. In this kind of matchup, especially in conservative Japanese strategic settings, a 2-0 lead early could spell curtains. Most teams don't have the big guns to mount more than a single decent rally against a top starter. Nippon Ham is just such a team. Darvish's margin of error is so thin that these first inning ordeals make it very hard to regroup. This was the case in this contest, as Kawakami dominated the Fighters from the very start, allowing only 3 baserunners through the first 5 innings, two of whom came in the 1st, ironically.

Darvish, meanwhile, never got it going completely, giving up another run in the 4th inning after recording the first two outs quickly. He gave up a hit, hit a batter, and then allowed a little roller to second base to score the runner on an infield single. It was a bit of hard luck for the young ace, but he did allow the hit batsman after all. Nippon Ham had it's one shining moment, where there was some hope. Kawakami appeared to tire just a bit in the 7th as he gave up a leadoff hit followed by a 2 run blast to catcher Shinji Takahashi. After walking the very next batter, Nippon Ham played things conservatively, sac bunting for the first out. Chunichi manager Ochiai went to the pen, who made things a little more interesting, but runners were left stranded, the score 3-2 Dragons.

That's where the game ended. Darvish went the full nine innings, allowing only 5 hits, but he walked 5 batters and hit another. That was his undoing. Considering his early problems, the 20-year old righty only allowed 2 batters over the minimum after the 4th inning. He was never sharp, and he never looked like the world class Darvish that we have come to know, but on an off night he managed to go nine, allowing only 3 runs, striking out 8. Tough loss. Click below for updated stats:

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 11

Interleague play continues in Japan as the Nippon Ham Fighters, now firmly in second place in the Pacific, took on the Yakult Swallows and All World outfielder Norichika Aoki. The Fighters have used a strong run prior to interleague, and a ridiculous 12-0 record against the Central to establish themselves as the hottest team in the sport. 14 consecutive wins to be exact! Darvish would look to continue Nippon Ham's string of victories, and their unblemished mark in interleague, on this steamy Saturday evening.

Continuing the trend of sluggish starts this season, Darvish gave up a scorching leadoff double to Aoki on a 1 and 1 cutter that was clocked at 89, but stayed a little too high and wasn't quite outside enough. Darvish then needed 8 pitches to fan Tanaka on a 91 mph straight fastball that the right fielder couldn't quite catch up to. After easily retiring Alex Ramirez, the Nippon Ham ace decided to double up on the "shuuto" to Aaron Guiel and looked to have the inning in the books until an error on the second baseman cost him the runner on base and a chance at an easy escape. 1-0 Yakult.

In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Darvish led off by issuing a walk. Fortunately, Japanese baseball clubs love to sac bunt and Darvish managed to retire the remaining two batter easily, stranding the runner at second. What if? We'll never know.

From the 3rd inning through the last out of the 9th, the young ace of the Fighters allowed 3 baserunners. A double, a home run to Alex Ramirez, and a single walk was all she wrote for Yakult. Darvish briefly had the lead after his teammates put 2 on the board in the top of the 6th inning, but Ramirez' solo shot evened the score and created a marathon of a game that didn't end until Yakult's 20-year veteran Ken Suzuki hit a pinch hit, walk off home run off Nippon Ham reliever Hisashi Takeda of the 1.85 ERA in 2007.

Suzuki (pictured at left and right) has played in a total of 122 games since the start of the 2005 season with 309 at bats and a combined .240 average and 8 home runs. The hit was his first of the 2007 season in 11 total at bats. Congratulations Ken. I suppose Trey Hillman may wish he'd stuck with Darvish for one more inning, as his ace had only thrown 124 pitches to that point, and we all know that means he has at least one more inning in him.

Norichika Aoki went 1 for 3 with a double and a run scored. He also worked a walk against Darvish, and saw his batting average drop to .350 on the year. Maybe he'll have better luck tomorrow. ;)

So, Nippon Ham's unblemished record in interleague is no more. Darvish did everything he had to do to get the win, but you can't win them all. 9 IP, 3 hits, 2 walks, 11 strikeouts, one earned run. Click below for updated stats:

Darvish Watch: Episode 10

While the elements conspired to prevent Yu Darvish from punishing the Yokohama Bay Stars, the struggling Hanshin Tigers were not so lucky. After consecutive days of rained out baseball against the Yokohama boys, including one aborted game after one inning, Trey Hillman gave Darvish the day off. After a night's sleep, Darvish took the hill dry and fired up to face the Hanshin club.

A bad offensive club is just what the doctor ordered for a pitcher who has struggled to get off to good starts in recent days. A 1-2-3 first was easy to predict against these toothless Tigers, but what we imagine and what happens are often very different things. Not on this day. 1-2-3 went the Tigers against Darvish, and in fact the first 7 Hanshin batters went back to the bench with their bats in their hands on this evening in June. After walking the second batter of the 3rd inning, young Yu Darvish close the door on any further danger. The top of the 4th inning saw one time Waseda University shortstop, and the would be saviour of the Hanshin franchise, go deep against Darvish in one of the few bright moments of his 4 year pro career. That player is Takashi Toritani, who once was considered a possibility to be drafted and traded to a Major League team (perhaps the Yankees), but went to Hanshin instead. Nothing he has done in his time with the Tigers has lived up to the huge billing he received as an amateur, but he now has a home run against the best pitcher on this side of the Pacific. Congratulations.

Following the home run to Toritani, Darvish allowed 2 baserunners over the remaining 5 innings he pitched, both erased on double plays. With an 8-1 lead, Trey Hillman relieved Darvish after the 8th inning, in a move that still puzzles me to this day. Darvish is Mr. Complete Game, and was cruising. The Nippon Ham relief core came in and needed 3 pitchers to get 3 outs, giving up 4 runs in the process. It wasn't the pen's finest hour, but Darvish got the win and Nippon Ham continues to climb the standings on their way toward first place. Remarkable after their horrendous start. Here are Darvish's updated stats on the season (click to enlarge):