Darvish's newest pitch has quite the nickname

July 5th, 2020

CHICAGO -- Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy smiled on Sunday when asked about his level of communication with pitcher over the past three months. Hottovy and Darvish stayed in touch and worked together during baseball's down period, sometimes through social media.

"If you follow him on Twitter, it's just as good," Hottovy quipped in a Zoom call with Chicago reporters. "Just getting his updates of new pitches he's coming up with, this new 'Supreme' that he had. It's just fun to watch him work, because he can do so many things that a lot of us can't do and never were able to do with a baseball."

Yes, about that new pitch.

On June 19, Darvish posted a video on Twitter of a pitch that he did, in fact, dub the "Supreme," as Hottovy mentioned. Consider it an alternative to the right-hander's traditional splitter. Hottovy said it was a hybrid pitch that combined a two-seam fastball with a split, and the video posted by Darvish shows the offering fading down and in toward the right-handed batter's box.

On Saturday, Darvish logged two innings in an intrasquad game at Wrigley Field, where he tested the pitch in the bullpen before featuring it a couple times in the outing, per Hottovy. The pitching coach did not specify when Darvish gave the new offering a trial run against a batter, but said the early feedback has been good.

"He liked it," said Hottovy, who paired Darvish with catcher Victor Caratini for Saturday's simulated game. "Caratini had a lot of good things to say about it."

For those keeping score at home, that gives Darvish as many as 11 known pitches in his arsenal. Last season, MLB.com's Mike Petriello compiled an analysis piece on other 10 offerings, following Darvish adopting a knuckle-curve and hard cutter during the 2019 campaign.

That may seem like an excessive amount of pitches, but Hottovy said there are a few factors working in Darvish's favor. One, the pitcher loves to dive into the data at his fingertips with the Cubs, doing a lot of research on his own. And above everything else, Darvish has a natural ability to spin and manipulate a baseball.

"He can spin a baseball if he's on a flat surface, if he's in a swimming pool, if he's on a mound," Hottovy said. "What makes him so unique is the fact that he can throw a slider, or he can throw a cutter, and to one hitter, if we want more depth or we want more downward action, he can make it do that. If it's another hitter and we want more sweeping action, he can make it do that.

"Again, a lot of guys in this game -- and I was not any different than a lot of them -- you do what you can, right? If I have a slider, 'This is about what I can make it do and that's it. I try to move it around the zone.' He just has a unique feel to be able to shape pitches, almost to the needs of who he's facing, too."

Hottovy said he has not pored through all the data on Darvish's first two-inning outing from Saturday, but the pitcher was sitting in the 94-97 mph range with his fastball. Overall, the pitching coach said Darvish was "a tick better" than what was expected after multiple months without facing hitters.

During baseball's intermission due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Hottovy said the biggest goal with Darvish was to keep the pitcher feeling strong. Everything else would fall into place if Darvish was able to maintain his physical condition in the weeks and months leading up to this now-60-game season.

"He's such a strong athlete," Hottovy said. "And for him to be able to maintain his strength and get the workout stuff that he needs is just as important for him as it is getting off the mound. He's a natural thrower."

When baseball hit pause in mid-March, Cubs manager David Ross was down to Darvish or Kyle Hendricks for the Opening Day starter role. They remain the top candidates for that assignment, though Ross and Hottovy have emphasized the importance of continuing to gauge where the pitchers are at physically over the next three weeks before lining things up.

Overall, Darvish had a 3.98 ERA with 229 strikeouts against 56 walks in 178 2/3 innings (31 starts) last season for the Cubs. Within that showing was an incredible second half, in which the righty had 118 strikeouts and only seven walks with a 2.76 ERA in 82 2/3 innings. He had a five-start stretch from July 30-Aug. 21 with 44 strikeouts and no walks in 29 1/3 innings.

"I just want him to be the guy he was the second half of last year," Ross said with a chuckle on Sunday. "He seems to be in a good place. The ball's coming out real good. Talking to him, he seems at peace and comfortable in the environment. He's a guy that we're going to lean on. He's a guy that is important to us."

And, as Hottovy said, as wild as it sounds, maybe adding an 11th pitch is part of that comfort.

"We want our guys to feel comfortable on the mound no matter what," Hottovy said. "If he feels comfortable having a pocket full of pitches that he can whip out at any time, then we want him to have the reins off him to be able to do that.

"And I think that's what you saw, a version of him kind of come out that second half of last season. We just want to keep harnessing that, keep pushing him that way."