PEORIA, Ariz. — Yu Darvish asked Chicago Cubs teammate Craig Kimbrel how to throw a knuckle-curve in August of 2019. A week later, he got a strikeout with the pitch.
It still wasn’t good enough for one of the game’s premier pitchers. He’s essentially always tinkering.
“It’s really fun to work on a lot of pitches,” Darvish said recently.
“He’ll be practicing a new pitch, throwing and throwing,” said Victor Caratini, the catcher who came to the Padres with Darvish as part of the December trade with the Cubs. “He’ll come to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a new pitch.’ “
Not entirely pleased with how his knuckle curve was performing, Darvish last year got in touch with the guy who runs @PitchingNinja, a popular Twitter account that features video and analysis, and asked for video of Cleveland ace Shane Bieber’s version of the pitch.
In 2020, Darvish got 10 of his 97 strikeouts with the knuckle curve, a ridiculous air-bender that travels anywhere from 77 to 84 mph.
He also got one with his regular curveball, which runs about 5 mph slower and travels more diagonally than the other version.
Oh, and the Padres’ new right-hander throws a “slow curve” as hard as 67 and as soft as 62 mph.
Then there’s the four-seam fastball and the two-seam fastball. Also, the split-finger fastball and a pitch he developed last year and named The Supreme, a cross between a splitter and a two-seam fastball, traveling not as fast as Darvish’s two-seamer (95 mph average) but not as slow as his split-finger fastball (90 mph) and fading as it approaches the plate kind of like a change-up.
The splitter might be getting a facelift, too. Darvish has been conferring this spring with Padres adviser Hideo Nomo about how he threw his signature pitch.
“Back one time I tried to pick his brain and learn the forkball or splitter, which I couldn’t at that time,” Darvish said. “Now that I’ve got some experience under my belt, I might be able to acquire that.”
Maybe he will get Nomo’s version of the pitch down and replace his own split-finger fastball. Or maybe he’ll just name it something else. Make it an even dozen pitches.
Because he also throws a slider, which moves like his cutter just more drastically. And there is a “hard” and a “soft” cutter. And then there is the change-up.
The 11 pitches are generally thrown on the same plane as they approach the plate with a variance of over 30 mph and darting every which way.
“It’s impressive because he can do it,” Padres pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “It’s not somebody just trying to invent something and it’s not working. He’s good at them. He has the uncanny ability to do a lot of different things with a baseball. … It’s not just a guy out there experimenting. He knows what he can do.”
A major league starting pitcher is generally considered to have an above-average mix if he can effectively throw four pitches.
Padres outfielder Tommy Pham said there are “a handful of guys in the big leagues who can do that.”
Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner, throws five. New Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove uses six at least 5% of the time.
“He’s got a handful more than me,” Musgrove said last week. “And I thought I had a lot.”
No one throws as many as Darvish. Truly, no one. The 10 pitches he has used in games over the past two seasons were the most since Statcast began tracking such things in 2008.
Darvish doesn’t throw all 11 pitches in his arsenal regularly. He primarily relies on seven:
In 2020, the cutter (43.6% of the time) was his primary pitch. Statcast does not differentiate between the pitches, which vary from the low 80s to the mid-90s. He also threw his slider (15.2), four-seam fastball (14.7), his sinker/two-seam fastball (9.5), knuckle curve (8.1), split-finger fastball (4.9) and curve (3.6).
Most importantly, Darvish throws strikes. Among pitchers who worked at least 50 innings in 2020, his 69% strike rate was tied for best in the majors.
Much of the time, those strikes are past batters. His 29.9% strikeout rate is second all-time (to Chris Sale’s 30.7) among pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Since 2012, just five pitchers have induced a higher swing-and-miss rate than Darvish’s 29.3%.
The last time he faced the Padres, in September 2019, Darvish struck out 14 in six scoreless innings. Wil Myers had three of those whiffs.
“Other than the fact his stuff is explosive, this guy can command the strike zone,” Myers said when asked to recollect that game. “He’s got great stuff. He knows how to pitch. … I’m glad he’s on my team and I don’t have to face him.”
How anyone gets a hit off Darvish these days is a mystery.
But the reality is that he was for the bulk of his career merely a very good pitcher. Not great, just better than good. Injuries and what he acknowledged being a difficult transition period in Chicago for a time turned his results positively pedestrian from the beginning of the 2018 season into the middle of ‘19.
From the start of his career through his first 18 starts of 2019, a span of 170 starts in all, Darvish ranked 39th in the majors with a 3.64 ERA and 32nd with a 3.58 FIP (fielding independent pitching, a metric which removes defense from the equation in measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness).
In his past 25 starts, beginning July 12, 2019 and all of them caught by Caratini, Darvish ranks fifth with a 2.40 ERA and third with a 2.54 FIP.
His batting average allowed also dropped 15 points to .204, and his strikeouts per nine swelled from 10.9 to 12.4 in that span.
Darvish has attributed part of his turnaround to health and to becoming more comfortable in Chicago. But there was also a noticeable shift in how he utilizes his arsenal of pitches.
He began throwing the splitter more, generally relied on the four-seam fastball far less and used the cutter far more. He has thrown more curves. The usage also varies from game to game, sometimes significantly.
“That’s something I’ve been working on for the past 1 1/2 years, trying to manipulate,” Darvish said. “It’s been working pretty good so far. Hopefully, I can keep it going.”
The Padres believe he will. It’s why they committed $59 million over the next three years to acquire the 34-year-old with a 3.43 career ERA.
“By all the tapes you get and everything I’ve seen watching and talking to people, he looks like he’s really coming into his own,” Rothschild said. “Since the middle of the year two years ago, a lot of good things started happening. He got comfortable in his own skin and was going to do the thing he knew worked for him. There was a certain leeway there where the Cubs let him do that.”
Rothschild is adamant he won’t be changing a thing.
“Where people have gotten in trouble with him in the past, in trying to help him as a pitcher, is they took away what he’s good at,” Rothschild said. “And that is manipulating the baseball and knowing what pitches to make and what he’s confident in during a game. The velocity (of the fastball) is 98, and can be up from that. When people see that, they want the pitcher to throw fastballs a lot. That’s not necessarily what works. He’s got a lot of confidence, and he’s able to manipulate the ball with spin. That’s a real strong suit. The ability to throw the ball as hard as he can is a strong suit, but they play off each other. It plays backward from what people would like to see, but it’s highly effective. … For me to get in the way of that would be a big mistake.”