When Yu Darvish starts for the Texas Rangers against the Astros on Saturday night in Houston, one reasonable expectation would be strikeouts. Many strikeouts. But not many Houston hits.
This is not merely a commentary on the level of competition. Darvish is striking out batters regardless of team affiliation. In fact, he is striking out batters at a record pace.
Darvish struck out 14 when he faced the Astros on April 2. But that wasn't even the most notable aspect of his performance. Darvish retired the first 26 Astros he faced, before Marwin Gonzalez singled up the middle leaving Darvish one out short of perfection.
Darvish said this week through an interpreter that that he has "completely forgotten" everything that happened in that start against the Astros.
"I'm sure their lineup has changed since I faced them," Darvish said. "So I will face them looking at it as a new challenge and a new team."
If Darvish has forgotten that outing against Houston, many other people are finding his performances to be extremely memorable. The sample size is small, but the talent is immense.
With 72 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings, Darvish is striking out 14.19 batters per nine innings. If he held that pace over an entire season, that would be the highest rate in history for a starting pitcher. The record is 13.41 by Randy Johnson in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Darvish is striking out so many hitters that his pitch counts are becoming a concern. But they are not a concern to Darvish, who says that if he had to, he could throw up to 200 pitches in a game. He is averaging 107.1 per game over his seven starts, fifth highest in the league.
"I have no plans to change my pitching style. I'm not concerned about my pitch counts," Darvish said. "I don't look for strikeouts or go for strikeouts. I know my pitching coaches are concerned about my pitch counts because of all the strikeouts. But as long as I have four days to rest, I don't care how many pitches I throw."
Rangers manager Ron Washington sees the strikeouts as inevitable, given Darvish's stuff. For the Rangers, this seems to be a happy inevitability
"He's striking out a lot of guys because he's got stuff, man," Washington said. "You've seen that video where he threw one pitch and it went five different directions. You're a hitter, you're looking for a fastball away, it comes back in. You're looking for the fastball up, it goes away. One pitch. I wonder what he calls that pitch, where he throws one and it goes five different directions.
"The pitch he struck [Boston designated hitter] David Ortiz out on, the fastball away, the ball started down the middle of the plate. David got ready to get it and the ball did that," Washington said, making a sharp veering motion with his hand. "How can you stay on that pitch? That's a pitch that's usually thrown to a right-hander and he threw it to a left-hander? How did he do it?
"He's got a good breaking ball. He's got two different ones. When it's down, that's when it's at its nastiest. He's got a little mustard on his four-seam fastball. When guys are striking out people, they're throwing a lot of pitches, but you can't stop what they do. I'd rather see him get an out with one pitch, but when you got good stuff, you strike people out. It's that simple."
Another issue with Darvish is that he works with what might gently be called deliberation. Darvish's slow pace, Washington maintains, is partly the result of pondering which of his many pitches to throw.
"Sometimes our catchers have to go through the 19,000 signs he has before he chooses one," Washington said with a smile. "I think it just depends on what he's thinking and what the catcher puts down, because he has more than three or four pitches. It takes a while.
"I just think he's got more than a couple of pitches he's got to look at the catcher for. He's got decisions he's got to make. Sometimes he might see that finger down quicker and sometimes he doesn't see that finger down quick enough. There's times he does get the ball and goes quickly because they're on the same page."
Jake Peavy, veteran starter for the White Sox, had this to say about Darvish taking his time on the mound:
"Yu Darvish, holy human rain delay. This guy is as good as anybody I've ever seen, but a minute and 20 between pitches. It puts you to sleep. But there's so much to process.
"[Rangers catcher] A.J. [Pierzynski] was telling us that [Darvish] pitches in quadrants. You'll watch the catcher call sides of the plate, correct? So you'll see Yu Darvish when he wants fastball away. He not only wants you to call it fastball away, but he wants you to call it up and away or down and away. Which is intense. I don't know if I'm good enough for that."
"Strikeout stuff" is a day at the office for Darvish. In fact, Darvish is a pitcher for whom the term "no-hit stuff" can be not a reach, but a reality. He approached perfection against the Astros to start the season, but the Houston club is far from alone in having difficulty taking the bat to the ball with Darvish pitching.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.