Padres' game plan: Let Darvish be Darvish

February 26th, 2021

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Since his arrival at Padres camp, has wasted no time being, well, Yu Darvish.

The veteran right-hander threw a live batting practice session on Thursday at the Peoria Sports Complex, and he gave his new teammates an early look at his eclectic pitch mix.

To go along with his four-seam fastball, Darvish estimated he threw five different offspeed pitches in his 20-pitch session on Thursday.

"Had very good control, all in all feeling really good," Darvish said through a team interpreter.

Darvish, who arrived in a December trade with the Cubs, faced six hitters on Thursday. (Well, technically just and three times apiece.) He held them to 1-for-6 with three strikeouts. The lone hit was a towering homer from O'Grady on a low-and-in fastball that Darvish said he didn't put far enough inside.

Of course, right now, the results are beside the point with Darvish. It's the process that matters. The Padres need to make sure they get the version of Darvish that has been one of the sport's most dominant arms since midway through the 2019 season.

To that end, they think they know the secret: Let Darvish be Darvish.

"He knows himself really well, and I think where people have gotten in trouble with him in the past ... is that they took away what he's really good at, and that's manipulating the baseball and knowing what pitches to make when," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild.

Rothschild acknowledged that Darvish's big-time velocity can be tantalizing. He sports a four-seam fastball in the mid- to high-90s with excellent life. But Darvish is at his best when he doesn't rely on it -- instead using weapons like his cutter and slider to get ahead in counts and his fastball as a putaway pitch.

It's counterintuitive, Rothschild acknowledged. Most pitchers rely on their fastball to set the tone. Darvish, on the other hand, threw a lower percentage of fastballs to start counts than when he was trying to end them. He threw a much higher percentage of fastballs when he was ahead than when he was behind.

With Darvish -- even though his four-seamer touches 97-98 mph -- there's no such thing as a fastball count. Rothschild says it's important to understand that.

"When people see that [velocity], they want the pitcher to throw fastballs a lot, and that's not necessarily what works," Rothschild said. "He's got a lot of confidence and is 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 really good strong suit. But they play off each other. A lot of times, it plays backwards from what people would like to see. But I think it's highly effective, and he's gotten comfortable in his own skin with that.

"For me to get in the way of that would be a big mistake."

That's the key: The Padres don't want to get in the way of Darvish. He finished with a 2.01 ERA and led the National League with a 2.23 FIP last season before finishing second in NL Cy Young Award voting. What is there to fix? The Padres merely want Darvish to be himself.

Manager Jayce Tingler noted that the Padres would likely hold Darvish back from Cactus League action until the team's second trip through the rotation. In the meantime, Darvish will pitch in further simulated game settings, and he'll continue picking the brain of fellow Japanese pitching icon and Padres special advisor Hideo Nomo before and after his bullpen sessions. (Darvish really wants to learn Nomo's splitter.)

Darvish is also getting to know his new teammates, which -- as he tells it -- has been a seamless transition.

"They've been great, very welcoming," Darvish said. "It's almost like a family atmosphere."