Being an All-Star is not that simple for Yu Darvish

Posted Sunday, Jul. 13, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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To most of the baseball world the next few days, Yu Darvish will be, simply, one of two players representing the Texas Rangers in the 85th All-Star Game, scheduled for Tuesday in Minneapolis.

Darvish has been an All-Star in each of his first three seasons, only the second American League pitcher to do so, and the expectation is that he will make his first appearance in the Midsummer Classic at Target Field.

He is, simply, one of the best pitchers in the league and in the majors. The numbers bear that out. So do his peers, who voted him onto the AL team.

But for Darvish, being an All-Star isn’t simple, on a few levels. And for the Rangers and even for himself, Darvish isn’t simple.

Between starts, he is a slave to his routine, but it’s a routine that changes on the fly depending on how he senses his body is responding to his workouts and diet.

With the media, he can be humble, charming, arrogant, aloof and annoyed — all within the same press conference.

On the mound, he can dominate, but the process can be deliberate and complicated.

But if he’s getting less complicated in any area, it’s with his pitching. After the Rangers preached to him in his first two seasons after leaving Japan the need to pitch off his fastball, Darvish is finally getting it.

“He’s been good every year, but when he commands his fastball, he’s as good as anybody in the game,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said.

“It was a different type of baseball than he was accustomed to. He’s learned that he does have a good fastball. If you use it more, it brings your pitch count down. You don’t get so many foul balls and swings and misses.”

Hitters in the majors are more disciplined than in Japan and can lay off off-speed pitches that dive out of the strike zone. Even when big league hitters are fooled, they can foul off a tough slider and stay alive in an at-bat.

Darvish is throwing his four-seam fastball 39.8 percent of the time, 10.6 percent more than in 2013, and 22.6 percent of his pitches are sliders, compared with 37.4 percent in 2013.

His strikeouts are down, though he remains among the league leaders, but so, too, are his pitches per batter (3.79 to 4.10 in 2013), pitches per inning (16.5 to 15.7) and pitches per game (107.8 to 106.2).

The increased efficiency comes as he learns the league better, but also as the league learns him.

“Every game has more cat-and-mouse to it, especially the guys in our division,” Maddux said.

The Rangers are also making Darvish pitch this season on more of a major league schedule than that of a pitcher transitioning from the once-a-week rotation in Japan. He still gets an extra day when possible, as do all Rangers pitchers, but he isn’t getting pushed back as often as in his first two seasons.

Part of that is out of necessity. The injuries to the Rangers’ pitching staff are well-documented. But part of that is being better equipped to work every fifth day.

“The training wheels are off,” Maddux said. “I think he’s acclimated to this schedule. We took baby steps in the beginning, and we ran a little faster last year and now we’re off and running.”

A key factor in Darvish’s development is a meticulous workout regimen that has him in the gym and on the field early each day. He is a creature of habit, but part of that habit is adjusting his workout schedule to accommodate for something that isn’t as good as he wants it to be.

This season, for instance, he has started taking extra fielding practice. At times, he has thrown short bullpen sessions, as few as 18 pitches during one in May. He frequently makes tweaks to his mechanics.

“You can see in game situations, although he’s a creature of habit, he tends to adjust really well,” said Kenji Nimura, Darvish’s interpreter. “He does the same thing between starts. If he doesn’t feel well with one thing, he’ll do another exercise program to compensate for that. He’s really flexible.

“He knows what he needs to do, and that’s the bottom line. He’s not doing these programs because he has to, but he does everything out of necessity. He seems to know a lot about his body and all the exercises he does and all the supplements that he takes.”

Ultimately, all that matters is that the complexities are simple to Darvish, who came to the United States to be considered one of the best pitchers in the game. To the media, though, he portrays that he isn’t there yet.

Three straight All-Star nods, albeit the first through the Final Vote by fans, and a runner-up finish last year in Cy Young balloting suggest that he is there.

Yet, he was overly humble when selected July 6, saying that he didn’t think he had been as good as other candidates. When asked how good he thinks he is, he shied away from a more truthful answer.

“I really don’t know, but I think I’m better than Little League pitchers,” he said.

There it is again: Nothing is simple with Darvish.

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