'Fearless' Darvish can replicate any pitch

October 18th, 2022

NEW YORK -- The tornado sirens blared, thousands flocked for cover and an apocalyptic glow hung over the North Side of Chicago.

Yu Darvish was in his element. The vacated bleachers left him alone on the outfield grass, a singular presence amid an eerily empty ballpark. And Darvish just went about his routine, somehow managing to maintain his focus while also doing everything he could to savor what he would later call a "sentimental … moment between myself and Wrigley Field."

Really, that night in June is the best representation of what Darvish's 2022 season is about. It's not that his love of pitching has been renewed. It’s the same as it ever was. It's that, more than ever, Darvish appears to be savoring it.

"I think what's happening this year, maybe more than any other year, is just how much he's enjoying himself,” pitching coach Ruben Niebla said.

At 36, Darvish is in the midst of a renaissance season. A year ago, he dealt with back and hip trouble that landed him on the IL three times in the final three months. He struggled down the stretch, and those struggles ran parallel with the Padres' collapse.

This year, then, it's no coincidence that Darvish's steadiness has helped drive the Padres into the NLCS. On a staff full of aces, Darvish has emerged as the Game 1 starter, and he'll get the ball Tuesday night for the opener against Philadelphia, having picked up wins against both the Mets and Dodgers already this postseason.

Darvish posted a 3.10 ERA, led the rotation with a 4.2 fWAR and has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball. He finished the regular season with 23 consecutive starts of at least six innings, and as manager Bob Melvin tells it, "he usually wants to go a lot more than six."

"I'm having fun,” Darvish said recently. “It's fun going into these challenging games. ... This is one of the more fun seasons, just going into games, really digging into what the hitters are trying to do.”

And that's where Darvish differentiates himself. Other pitchers study. Some other pitchers (probably very few, but some) study as much as Darvish. But Darvish is like the kid who loves homework. No one enjoys studying more than Darvish.

"I don't want this to sound like I'm taking anything away from him and his hard work, but it almost seems like it's just how he's wired," said Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove. "It's not like he's coming in, feeling like, ‘I have to work hard.’ It's just something that he really loves. He obsesses over it. He watches more video than anybody. He tweaks with his stuff more than anybody. And it's never too much for him."

Darvish studies everything. He studies opposing hitters. He studies his teammates.

He also has a habit of studying opposing pitchers. Not to scout them, per se. But to steal their pitches. Darvish already throws 11(!) different pitches. But that's not nearly enough to satisfy his curiosity.

"He's the best in the game, maybe ever, at being able to manipulate the ball," said right-hander Nick Martinez, Darvish's teammate with the Rangers, now reunited in San Diego. "Completely out of nowhere, he'll just watch someone, listen to the way they talk about their curveball, watch their metrics -- and then he'll do it."

Said Niebla: "You almost have to see it first-hand to appreciate it. At times, I'll spend so much time just trying to work with guys and create a consistent shape. Then you see this guy, and he's creating different shapes whenever he wants to."

During a recent trip to Arizona, for instance, Darvish came away wholly impressed with Zac Gallen's curveball. So he studied it. Relentlessly. He watched video. He found Gallen talking about the pitch -- the philosophy behind it and the grip. He dove into the metrics -- the vertical and horizontal break.

And within a few days, said Martinez, "He's throwing Zac Gallen's curveball."

Baseball Savant only recognizes seven different Yu Darvish offerings -- a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a splitter, a changeup, a cutter, a slider and a curveball. Seven is a lot -- more than almost anyone else in baseball. But it's doing a disservice to Darvish.

He throws three distinctly different versions of that cutter and two versions of that curveball, plus a splitter-fastball hybrid.

In September, Darvish became just the second pitcher in baseball history to record 3,000 strikeouts between Japan and MLB, with at least 1,000 in each, joining Japanese pitching icon Hideo Nomo.

After that start, in which Darvish held the Dodgers scoreless for seven innings, Padres catcher Austin Nola summed it up thusly:

"I’m just telling you right now, as a hitter, if a pitcher has more than three pitches working and you have two strikes, you're in trouble," Nola said. "If he has more than three working at a time, you’re in trouble. He’s got 10 pitches. If you eliminate seven of them, there’s still three left. … You get to two strikes, you’ve got 10 pitches to worry about. Good chance you’re going to strike out."

Nola later acknowledged he had the number wrong. It’s 11. Sometimes, it's more than that. Those pitches Darvish messes around with -- those carbon copies of other pitchers -- sometimes he'll bust them out in a game, much to the surprise of Nola and Niebla.

Usually, for Darvish, there's a method to it. He's found something in the opponent's swing that might make that version of a pitch suitable to that situation. And when he commits to it, there’s no hesitation.

"He doesn't care -- the guy is fearless," Niebla said. “He's just fearless when it comes to that. ... Yu's biggest pleasure in life is making the ball spin."

Niebla spent years in the Cleveland organization working with some serious talent as a pitching coordinator and assistant pitching coach. He says he's never heard anyone describe spin the way Darvish does -- how Darvish feels the spin as it leaves his fingertips.

Darvish is a wizard with his mechanics as well, owner of one of the most finely tuned deliveries in baseball. No motion is wasted. He also has a knack for mimicking the mechanics of other pitchers. And it doesn't matter whether they throw righty or lefty.

That's because Darvish can do both. No, he can’t throw left-handed with the same velocity. But he can throw left-handed -- and does so on occasion, during his pregame workouts. He says being ambidextrous, occasionally taking the burden off his right, helps keep him balanced.

“It looks natural,” says Niebla. “If you wouldn’t have known, you would’ve thought he was a left-hander.

Recently, with the Dodgers in town, one of Darvish's lefty-throwing teammates was going through a pregame running routine, and he’d left his glove on the outfield grass. Darvish put it on and began playing catch. And suddenly, he was Clayton Kershaw -- those distinct Kershaw mechanics down to a science. (Darvish and Kershaw were longtime catch partners during offseasons in Texas, though the two agreed to put a stop to that when they ended up on separate sides of a divisional rivalry.)

More than anything, it’s a product of Darvish’s simple love for pitching. He hosts impromptu powwows by his locker, usually with a baseball in hand, discussing grips or finger pressure or spin.

Darvish throws more pitches than pretty much anyone else in baseball -- and yet, he remains curious as ever. Darvish has struck out more hitters faster than anyone in baseball history -- and yet, he remains hungry as ever.

"It's inspiring," Musgrove said. "It's nice to see what's attainable at that age -- and to see the effort that comes with it, the consistency and the work ethic, all those things that it takes."

But with Darvish, really, it’s no effort at all.