Olney: Yu Darvish remixes deep assortment to regain mastery

Gifted with a rich assortment of pitches, Yu Darvish has become even more unpredictable on the mound. Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports

DETROIT -- After Yu Darvish’s last start, against the Philadelphia Phillies, Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos had dinner with Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis, a good friend. Galvis admitted to him that he had hunted Darvish’s slider, which is regarded as perhaps the best breaking ball in Major League Baseball right now.

Galvis waited on the pitch, and waited, looking to attack the slider whenever Darvish decided to try to slip it past him. He ignored the fastball, as well as the full spectrum of other pitches that Darvish can throw.

Sure enough, Darvish threw him a slider, and Galvis jumped at it, anxiously -- and missed it by a whole lot, flailing as the pitch spun into the dirt. That a major league hitter could wait and wait and wait for Darvish’s slider and then still look so bad on the pitch tells you about its quality, Chirinos said through a laugh as he recounted the conversation.

Darvish, who starts against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday Night Baseball and is scheduled to start next weekend in Toronto, was mostly known for his breaking stuff when he pitched in Japan. But since recovering from his 2015 Tommy John surgery, he has heeded the advice of the Rangers’ staff and catchers and improved his slider by throwing it less -- and throwing more fastballs.

Before Darvish’s surgery, Chirinos said, other hitters had started to take the same approach that Galvis tried, waiting on the slider. Now Darvish usually throws his fastball more often, so that when he does throw the slider, hitters don’t have the same level of comfort because -- like Galvis -- they are forced to wade through Darvish’s other stuff to see it.

And Darvish throws an incredibly wide-ranging arsenal. As Chirinos talked about all of the pitches that the right-hander throws, he prompted his memory by going through the signs – the changeup, the splitter, the curveball, the speed variations. Remarkably, Darvish is able to maintain a feel for all of these pitches with very little practice. As he warms up in the bullpen before each of his starts, Darvish has a set routine of what he will throw, starting with three outside fastballs, and then a breaking ball. But within that relatively short number of warm-up pitches -- maybe 30 or so, Chirinos estimated -- Darvish will mix in at least one or two of the other types of pitches.

At the end of his warmups, Chirinos said, Darvish will offer his feelings to his catcher about which pitches feels right, what he will use as a primary weapon. Before that start against the Phillies, for example, he had told Chirinos that he wanted to use his changeup, and the battery mixed in a couple. According to FanGraphs, he used significantly fewer cutters than he had in his previous start against the Padres, and threw more sliders -- 40 percent of his 95 pitches that day, for the second-highest rate in any of his starts in the 2017 season.

Darvish doesn’t shake off many signs in a given start -- about three or four in a game, Chirinos estimated -- and what he throws mostly are fastballs, for the highest average fastball velocity of his career, 94.1 mph.

Whatever combination of pitches that Darvish throws in any given game, it seems to be working for him. His 2.76 ERA is the lowest in any season in his career, and with Jake Arrieta off to a slow start, the Texas right-hander is setting himself up to be the most coveted free agent starter -- if he makes it to the market. The Rangers may make one more run at signing Darvish to a long-term deal this summer, perhaps before the trade deadline, as they make their final assessment about whether to dangle him in the market, or do what it will take to keep one of baseball’s best pitchers.