Yu Darvish’s Infinite Arsenal, Supreme Confidence Create Room for Further Improvement

Much has been made of how many different pitches Yu Darvish throws, but trying to assign a number to his vast repertoire is as futile as it is limiting. Whether the tally is closer to 11 or 69 or 420, the truth is that he’s more like a painter who can mix and match as he pleases with infinite shades or gradients. Top it off with that flow sprouting from beneath his hat and he’s baseball’s version of Bob Ross.

Darvish made plenty of hitters look like happy little trees, rooted as they were to the ground when he vexed them with something they didn’t expect. Not that you can blame them since he’s been known to invent new pitches on the spot or tinker with a grip he last used several years prior, if ever.

That willingness to try new things made him a Cy Young finalist for the first time in seven years (he finished second in 2013) and put him in contact with 2020 winner Trevor Bauer. Regardless of what you think of the abrasively churlish hurler and his [alleged] use of foreign substances, Bauer is one of the game’s foremost experts on grip, spin rate, etc. Like any collector, Darvish is constantly seeking out new pieces to add to his repertoire.

“There are days where he’s going to come in and he’s gonna be like, ‘I talked to (Kenta) Maeda, I’m going to use his changeup grip today,’” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic. “Or ‘I was watching (Jacob) deGrom, I want to try his slider grip.’ He’s that kind of guy.

“That’s how his mind works and that’s who he wants to be. We’re never going to hinder that enthusiasm and that willingness to be creative. That’s what makes him so unique.”

As strange as it may seem to say that a 34-year-old is only now realizing the full extent of his pitching prowess after 16 years of professional ball, that seems to be the case with Darvish. Between experience and cultural changes from both his move to MLB and playing for different organizations, the righty may not have been truly comfortable until about midway through the 2019 season.

After an injury-plagued campaign during his first season in Chicago, it was evident that Darvish wasn’t quite willing to cut it loose when 2019 opened. He was tentative and couldn’t find a rhythm as a result, often leading to wildness and abbreviated outings. Once he settled into a groove, however, it was game over for opposing hitters. Darvish was comfortable being himself on the mound, which meant working deliberately and throwing pretty much whatever the hell he wanted to.

He learned Craig Kimbrel’s knuckle-curve in San Francisco and started throwing it the very same day in his start. Not coincidentally, the adoption of that pitch — which mimicked the hard curve he’d scrapped following Tommy John surgery — fueled his surge back to ace status and may have given him the ultimate confidence to tinker further with additional offerings.

“If we say we like a certain slider to, let’s just say a left-handed hitter, that’s more up and in on his hands versus a back-foot slider, he’ll work on that,” Hottovy explained to Sharma. “If we say we like a slower curveball to this hitter because we want to throttle him with the curveball and changeup, he can find a grip that’s gonna make his curveball slower and more effective.

“He likes the fact that he can just experiment and have the freedom to not be second-guessed when he comes in mid-inning and says, ‘Yeah, I switched my grip on my slider. I just didn’t feel good with the one I was using, so I went to a different one.’”

While there’s still something to be said for keeping things limited, it’s hard to argue with the results Darvish has gotten over the last year and a half. And there’s ample evidence he can still get even better. Consider that his ERA, FIP, and walk numbers have all gone down over the last three seasons while his strikeout percentage has gone up or held steady. His fastball velocity has gone up in each of the last three seasons, a product of his work ethic and good health as much as it is his confidence to cut it loose.

God help Christian Yelich if Darvish really can get better.

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