Editor's Note: Our Surprise position outlooks continue this week with the starting rotation.
Today's position: No. 1 starter
The final eight regular season starts of the 2012 season established Yu Darvish as the club's top pitcher heading into 2013. It was a year full of adjustments and changes for Darvish. He came into spring training amid all kinds of publicity with a host of Japanese reporters covering his every move.
He struggled with his command in the first half of the year but still collected wins. He won the fan vote for the final spot on the AL All-Star team but didn't pitch in the game. But a conversation with manager Ron Washington in Boston coincided with Darvish figuring things out. Washington said it was Darvish believing in himself and trusting what he was doing. The numbers reflect a major shift:
Before Aug. 6 start (Bos): 11-8, 4.57 ERA in 21 starts, 74 walks (3.5 walks per start), 154 strikeouts (in 134 innings), .238 opponent average
After Aug. 6 start: 5-1, 2.35 ERA in eight starts, 15 walks (1.8 per start), 67 strikeouts (57 1/3 innings), .176 opponent average
To me, the biggest thing was cutting down the walks. Darvish wasn't easy to hit. But when he got into trouble, it was usually because of walks. He dropped them by almost two per start down the stretch, helping him limit damage. He also pitched deeper into games, giving his team a chance to win on a consistent basis. In other words: He pitched like an ace.
I think Darvish gave big league hitters too much credit early in the season. He tried to use every pitch he had in his tool box, rather than just simplify things. The Darvish we saw down the stretch worked off his fastball, used his devastating slider and kept hitters off-balance with changes in speed (like well-timed slow curves). Darvish was aggressive, got ahead in counts and sent many batters back to the dugouts shaking their heads.
Darvish said nearly a week ago that he was pleased with his season but wants to build on it.
"Compared to last year, I feel so much more at ease," Darvish said. "After finishing my first year, getting to know the players, coaches, front office personnel and getting to know all those guys. I feel like I'm part of the team now. It's a totally different feeling."
Darvish goes into 2013 knowing how his body responds to pitching every fifth day and what it's like to pitch in the big leagues and play for the Rangers. Those won't be "new" things anymore. He said it's made his offseason work easier.
"I've been able to plan, relax and prepare the way I want," Darvish said. "Last year there was more of rush in trying to prepare at a much quicker pace. I'm going at my own pace, working out, not getting hurt. This offseason preparation has been much better."
Darvish is focused on improving, hoping to put up numbers like he did at the end of 2012 for most of 2013. He was one of the top pitchers in the league for the final few months in 2012 and he's healthy. Perhaps, too, it will help that every single thing he does in spring training -- from an early bullpen session and intrasquad game to his Cactus League start -- won't be quite as crazy as it was last year, when he was doing all of those things for the first time. No doubt, he'll be covered intensely. But he knows what to expect now. That has to help.
I expect really great things from Darvish in 2013. He'll have Geovany Soto catching for him and he was behind the plate when Darvish competed so well down the stretch. Darvish is hungry to prove himself and with a year under his belt, he should be even better.