How can Yu Darvish improve in 2014?

Rangers ace Yu Darvish says he's more comfortable now that he's been in the majors a few years. AP Photo/LM Otero

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It might be a bit of folly, asking how a guy who finished runner-up in the AL Cy Young balloting and came within one out of a perfect game can improve on the mound in 2014. But the reality is Darvish can improve. He knows it and so do his coaches.

It starts with fastball command. The more consistent that becomes, the better chance Darvish has of limiting his pitch count.

"Command of the fastball is like a snowball: It gets bigger," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "If I get fastball command, I command the counts. If I command the counts, I command the at-bat. If I command the at-bat, I command the inning."

Manager Ron Washington blames Darvish's high pitch counts on a large number of foul balls. Nevermind that Darvish is a strikeout pitcher and those hurlers generally throw more pitches.

"He's tough to square up," Maddux said. "He just induces a ton of foul balls. Sometimes you say, 'What can we do?' We hope for forward contact instead of side-to-side contact. It would be lovely to throw a pitch and have a guy put it in play and get an out."

It was just three years ago that the idea of Darvish talking to the media early in spring meant a hundred or so people cramming into a white tent outside the Rangers' clubhouse just to hear what he might say. The tent is still there, but it was more around 30 folks in attendance Tuesday for what has become an annual rite of spring training.

Darvish said he felt great and wasn't having any of the back issues that plagued him late last year. Darvish received an injection at the end of the season and said he adjusted his workout routine to avoid heavy lifting. He said a few days ago that he hasn't had pain since mid-January.

As for the fastball command, Darvish understands the importance of staying consistent with it. And he's confident he'll get better.

"You'll probably see during the course of the season how much I have improved," Darvish said through an interpreter.

The other issue for Darvish is close games. He was on the losing side of a big-league record four 1-0 games. Darvish averaged 4.81 runs per game, while Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer averaged 6.80.

"As a pitcher, I can only control what I do with the ball," Maddux said. "I can’t run bases. I can't catch a ball in the outfield. I can only control what I can control. He personified that. Never once did he ever make any whimpers of, ‘Boy it sure would be nice to get some runs.’ Never once. That’s the kind of teammate he is. He’s going to go out and do the best he can and wants everyone else to the best they can."

Darvish is choosing to focus on making each of his starts and not what happens around him.

"The game is something you can’t control, so you can’t be pessimistic or optimistic," Darvish said. "The main thing is to keep yourself healthy. If you’re healthy enough, I think numbers are going to follow. The outcome is something that is a result of having a healthy season. I can’t really control what goes on in game situation."

Darvish looks slimmer this spring, an observation several coaches and teammates have made. But he said he's lost only two pounds. Maddux said Darvish threw the ball well in his first live batting practice session Tuesday and feels he may be a little ahead of the other pitchers.

Darvish says he's more comfortable now that he's been in the majors a few years.

"I'm more relaxed and I can do many things at my own pace and I'm aware of what's going on and people know me better than in the past," Darvish said. "So I feel more relaxed this time."

We'll see if that translates into an even bigger 2014.