Yu Darvish provides blueprint for solid 2014

Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish will make his second start of the season tonight when he faces the Houston Astros. If it's anything like his first, he'll pitch deep into the game thanks to an efficient approach centered on first-pitch strikes.

If there was one thing Darvish wanted to improve upon from last year's Cy Young runner-up finish, it was staying in games longer. There was plenty of discussion of pitch counts in relation to Darvish at various points. But the reality is that those counts climbed early in games, forcing him to exit earlier than he wanted.

But in Tampa last Sunday, Darvish threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced. That's 69 percent. Darvish managed first-pitch strikes to just 57 percent of the batters he faced in 2013, ranking near the bottom of all qualified AL starters. His percentage now puts him 11th among all AL starters (including non-qualifiers, since Darvish has made just one start and most of the others have made two), according to FanGraphs.com.

That's an important stat for Darvish because, by getting ahead in the count, he put himself in an early advantage against the hitter and, consequently, be in position to get outs quicker. He had 20 at-bats on Sunday -- most of them outs, of course -- that lasted three pitches or fewer. And four of his six strikeouts were on three pitches. For a strikeout pitcher, that's also key in keeping the count low.

Darvish won't be throwing 89 pitches (or 65 strikes) in seven innings in many of his starts. But he averaged just under 6 2/3 innings per start last season. Not bad. But in many of those starts, he could have pitched longer if not for high counts earlier in games, caused somewhat about a lack of first-pitch strikes.

Darvish attacked with his fastball Sunday and got ahead much more often. The result was a pitcher that, despite not having pitched a game all season with neck stiffness, got through seven innings without even hitting 90 pitches. With Darvish's stuff, those are the kinds of numbers that can take him to the next level in 2014 as he stays in games longer.

Watch for that tonight against an Astros team that Darvish nearly threw a perfect game against in his first outing versus Houston last year.