February 20, 2009


New Stage for Japan’s Rising Pitching Star (BRAD LEFTON, 2/20/09, NY Times)

“[Yu] Darvish has better control than Matsuzaka,” [Masato Yoshii, who pitched for the Mets in the late 1990s] said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find an example over the course of a season where he got knocked out on walks. He has exceptional control of every pitch known to man except a knuckleball.

“He throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a slider that breaks to the side and one that breaks down, a curveball, a changeup, a sinker and a forkball. I’d call his downward-breaking slider a power curve, and it’s devastating. It’s his secret weapon that’s really not a secret to anyone, but they’re all still powerless to do anything other than swing and miss at it. That’s his sure-fire way of finishing you off when he has to.”

The son of Farsad, an Iranian father, and Ikuyo, a Japanese mother, Darvish was born and raised in Osaka. He has never lived outside his birth country, but he has traveled to Iran and the United States, where his parents met while studying in Florida. He remembers his father pushing him toward soccer as a child, but he found something enchanting about the baseball games he saw on television. When he got his first Little League hit, he was hooked.

His lanky 6-foot-5-inch build and distinctive facial features would be enough to make him stand out anywhere, but in a homogenous land, a family name that sounded like none other gave him unwanted attention growing up.

“Kids used to say stuff all the time about how I was different,” Darvish said in Japanese, playing down the suggestion that wearing the national team uniform gave him extra satisfaction in light of such teasing. “It hasn’t been an issue since I was little.”

The Fighters selected Darvish in the first round of the 2004 draft as a high schooler. By then, he was known across the country for having pitched a no-hitter in the spring version of a prestigious national high school baseball tournament that March. He earned a bad-boy image later for being suspended from high school for smoking a cigarette, illegal for minors here, and posing nude for a magazine in 2007. His devilish laughter at the mention of those incidents is a hint that rebelliousness still lurks within him.

But lost in the commotion over his defiance off the field and his vast natural athleticism on it is an astounding aptitude for pitching mechanics that those who know him describe with the highest admiration.

His tentaclelike limbs gave way to an exaggerated, sweeping pitching motion when he first turned pro as he tried to wind his long arms and legs through the twists of his delivery. His motion, while inefficient from a physics standpoint, produced impressive baseball results: records of 5-5 with a 3.53 earned run average and 12-5 with a 2.89 E.R.A. in his first two seasons.

But today, he pitches with the more compact movements of a smaller player. That allows him to better maintain his balance, resulting in more force and greater control.

Who carefully coached him through this transformation? Darvish, it turns out, did it himself.

“I’m a big guy, right?” he said, extending his arms. “But I began to realize that by actually using my body like a big guy, I couldn’t control my pitches the way I wanted to. I could throw the ball hard, but at this level if you’re not accurate, it’s easy for batters to light you up with home runs. That’s when I started concentrating on making my movements more compact. It just seemed to me that smaller movements would produce the kind of pitching I desired.”

Such an understanding of mechanics might not be so stunning from a seasoned professional, but Darvish figured this out over the course of his second and third professional seasons, when he was 19 and 20 years old. He transformed into a more consistent pitcher who threw with greater force and better control in the 2007 season.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2009 8:33 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus