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Sunday, March 16, 2014
Darvish the Cy Young favorite in AL

By David Schoenfield

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- One thing you can say about Yu Darvish: He isn't just a thrower, a guy with a million-dollar arm and five-cent head.

After struggling with command and location in Sunday's spring training game against the White Sox, Darvish went down to the bullpen to work a bit on his mechanics.

"I threw so many cutters that I felt a little off, so I wanted to make sure my delivery was OK," he said after the game through his translator.

Darvish through 84 pitches, just 48 for strikes, including 16 cutters. That's not really all that different from the percentage of cutters he threw last season -- 16 out of 84 is 19 percent while he threw 16 percent cutters last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information data -- but it at least sounded like a plausible explanation for his mediocre performance.

Darvish did say he was working specifically on his cutter and two-seam fastball in this game. A member of the Japanese media also noticed Darvish was working more often from the first-base side of the rubber. Darvish said that was the case, that he "wanted to see the reaction of the hitters to that style of pitching."

Even though he went 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA last season while leading the major leagues in strikeouts (277) and strikeout rate (32.9 percent) and ranking second in batting average allowed (.194), Darvish is still tinkering and looking to improve. The one thing he didn't come close to leading the league in, however, was control. He walked 80 batters, and while that was an improvement from 2012, his 9.5 percent walk rate ranked 76th of 81 qualified starters.

He's talked about improving his fastball command this year, but he's also apparently working through some mechanical adjustments, as he pitched through a nerve issue in his lower back down the stretch in 2013, a problem that caused some numbness in his right leg. "Obviously, I'm changing my delivery a little so there are many little adjustments to make," he said.

On Sunday, he failed to reach his goal of 15 pitches per inning as he walked three batters in 4.2 innings. A 17-pitch first inning included one fastball launched to the backstop and he threw 23 pitches in the fourth, when the White Sox scored their two runs off him. "It wasn't very good," Darvish said of his game, "but I was able to grind it out."

It's noteworthy that Darvish said he was working on his cutter because that was his least effective pitch in 2013, at least when the pitch was put in play. Batters hit .271/.357/.500 in 112 plate appearances ending in the cutter, with 11 walks and just five strikeouts. It's not necessarily fair to suggest he junk the pitch just because it's not a strikeout pitch. He uses the cutter more early in the count, relying on his slider or curveball for most of his punchouts (244 of his 277 strikeouts came on those two pitches, as batters hit just .151 against them), or when he's behind in the count and doesn't want to lay in a fastball down the middle.

The cutter was more effective for Darvish in 2012, when batters hit just .198 against it (albeit with just 11 strikeouts in 126 plate appearances). That gets back to better fastball command: If he can better locate his two-seam fastball -- he threw 22 of them on Sunday -- maybe he doesn't need to throw so many cutters. Just a thought.

Regardless, Darvish is still on the short list for AL Cy Young favorite -- maybe the favorite. Few pitchers can match his stuff and variety of pitches. He only threw one curveball on Sunday and while he doesn't throw many, usually about 10 per game, it's one a vicious weapon as batters went 6-for-90 against it last year.

"I feel more comfortable this year," he said, answering questions in his gray Rangers T-shirt inside a stuffy tent outside the Rangers clubhouse after the game. "My first year, I felt like an outsider, but not on this team." That comfort level has to help to some degree. He's also used to dealing with the dozen or so members of the Japanese media who cover him on a daily basis.

The pressure on Darvish to perform may be even greater this year. Not because he's the new guy from Japan with the big contract anymore but because he's the proven guy. With Derek Holland out, Matt Harrison not ready for Opening Day and guys like Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando needing to show they can handle a heavier workload, the burden will be on Darvish to save the bullpen every fifth day.

He didn't look like that pitcher on Sunday, but I'm not worried. He's the guy I'd bet my Cy Young prediction cash on.