Pitchers’ Duel Diary: Yu Darvish vs. Hiroki Kuroda

MEAC/SWAC Challenge

Welcome to the new series for pitching junkies, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.

This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel

Yu “Whirling” Darvish vs. Hiroki “Club Soda” Kuroda

The Basics

YU DARVISH

Bio: Age 26, righty, 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, born in Habikino, Japan, no college, came to the U.S. in 2012

2013 Stats: 7-3, 2.95 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 12.07 K/9, 2.8 WAR

Pitches: One of the reasons Darvish has a fighting chance to become the first Japanese Cy Young Award winner is that he throws … everything. I would point you to Garik16′s post mentioned in the sidebar to the right, which shows that in a single game in 2012, Darvish threw eight distinct pitches. He gets incredible tailing action (in on righties) on his changeup, two-seamer, and even the four-seamer and splitter. And while his array of curves — normal curve, slow curve (I will absolutely be calling this an EEPHUS), and slider — all break to the opposite side, he also has a cutter that slices, Mariano Rivera style, in on lefties. So if a batter plans to adjust by speed — fast means tailing right, slow means tailing left — the changeup and cutter exist to cramp his style. (It should be noted, though, that beginning in August of last year, Darvish largely dropped the changeup from his arsenal.) He averages 94 mph on his four-seam fastball (64th in MLB), and while the horizontal and vertical break on his other pitches is near the top without being at the top, his variety is so effective that he owns the second-highest whiff rate among starting pitchers in baseball (and the top K-rate and strikeouts per nine innings, if you’re keeping track).

Fun Fact: His father is Iranian, so he’s fluent in both Japanese and Farsi.

HIROKI KURODA

Bio: Age 38, righty, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, born in Osaka, Japan, no college, came to the U.S. in 2008

2013 Stats: 7-5, 2.77 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 6.09 K/9, 2.1 WAR

Pitches: Kuroda relies heavily on a sinking fastball, which he uses 38.56 percent of the time. Instead of a changeup, he throws a split-fingered fastball that moves five mph slower than his sinker, and his offspeed pitch of choice is the slider. He’ll rarely throw a curve and a four-seamer, but those other three pitches are his favorites. His tactics can be a bit predictable — the slider is mostly reserved for righties; a lefty with two strikes is almost always getting the splitter or the sinker — and his velocity and movement are not especially exceptional. But the fact that he’s put up such consistently good numbers indicates that he mixes his pitches intelligently, and he’s been a savior to a Yankees team that has spent most of the season on the verge of reeling. Kuroda usually elicits a low BABIP, but his this year is lower than ever at .252, indicating there may be some luck at play in his low ERA.

Fun Fact: One of his best games in America came last summer against these very Texas Rangers, when he threw a two-hit shutout.

The Diary

First Inning: MLB Extra Innings is giving me the Rangers broadcasters tonight, and I’m pretty sure Steve Busby is the most Texas announcer in baseball. His intro was something like, “BOY HOWDY, WE’RE IN THE BIG APPLE AND I’M AS PLEASED AS A TWOPENNY COWPOKE AT A 10-DOLLAR HOEDOWN!” A good bit of info from Busby, though: This is Darvish’s first time pitching in Yankee Stadium. Don’t let the ghosts get to you … Yu.

Kuroda’s up first, though, and leadoff man Ian Kinsler jumps all over a 1-2 fastball, drilling it to left, where Zoilo Almonte makes a terrific catch on the run. (Yes, Zoilo Almonte is the name of someone who starts for the Yankees.) Kuroda’s luck runs out with Elvis Andrus, who lines a single to right on a fastball. Unfortunately, that ends our bid for a double perfect game; we’re now 0-for-4 in pitchers’ duel diaries, and 0-for-history in Major League Baseball. Despite the hits, Kuroda is getting ahead of the Rangers’ batters. He’s got the 20th-lowest walk rate among starters, but since his strikeout rate is so slow, that’s just half the battle. He’s 0-2 on Nelson Cruz, but an outside slider and an outside fastball even the count at 2-2 before Cruz whiffs at another slider. This is the Kuroda formula: patience, intelligence, and no free passes. He’s still successful at age 38 because he has no illusions about himself. On an 0-1 pitch to Adrian Beltre, another fastball produces a popout.

And now it’s Darvish, whose opponent batting average of .185 is tops in the major leagues. He treats Brett Gardner to trio of fastballs, the third of which is a nice cutter that sneaks in on the lefty’s hands and produces a groundout to first. Now it’s Ichiro, who is 6-for-11 in his career against Darvish. And just after the Rangers announcers speculate that many of those hits have been bloops, Ichiro obliges them by blooping a single to right. Then Robinson Cano, one of the purest hitters in baseball, lines a single to left on a straight fastball. Darvish loves the cutter against lefties, and he starts Travis Hafner with two straight. Hafner doesn’t bite, and suddenly, it’s 3-0. Darvish works it to 3-2, but Hafner sits on the high slider and raps another single.

What’s up with Yu? Is he rattled? Probably not. Looking at his inning splits, this isn’t unusual; in 2013, Darvish’s first-inning ERA is an astounding 6.19. (The Yanks would be wise to score now, because he’s basically untouchable in Innings 4-7.) He fights back against Lyle Overbay, absolutely freezing him with a 79 mph curveball for the strikeout. Then, on a 2-2 count to lefty Almonte, when there’s a 62 percent chance he’ll throw a breaking ball, he goes to the curve to get a groundout and escape the inning unscathed.

DOUBLE SHUTOUT!

Second Inning: Analyzing Kuroda isn’t rocket science. There will be a lot of sinkers, such as the one he just used to get A.J. Pierzynski to ground out, and the one he just used to get Mitch Moreland to ground out, and the one … you get the point. But man, the play Cano made on Moreland’s grounder, moving right, was quintessential Robbie. I know this is a pitchers’ diary, but watching my favorite player toss an across-the-body dart is a pleasure every damn time. Check it out here.

As Darvish starts to get into his groove, you get the sense the Yankees really missed an opportunity last inning. Jayson Nix is toast, strikeout style, on a slow curve followed by a slider. David Adams fouls off two high fastballs to make his situation helpless at 0-2, and Darvish mocks him with a third straight four-seam fastball that Adams was absolutely not expecting. He stands stone-still as it goes down the middle, and he’s gone. The no. 9 hitter, Chris Stewart, walks to the plate on an 0-for-16 streak, and on the 1-1 count … EEPHUS! The slowest curve, 71 mph, is a beautiful thing to behold, and Stewart swings as though he’s wearing a blindfold. Two pitches later, he reaches for a slider and flies out weakly to right.

DOUBLE SHUTOUT!

Third Inning: Bore-oki Bore-oda starts out the third by getting David Murphy to line out to short on, yes, a sinker. But against Leonys Martin, he breaks out a lovely sinking slider, follows it up with a straight fastball on the corner, and he’s fun again. Unfortunately, he leaves a 2-2 fastball up in the zone, and Martin just clobbers it into the right-field seats. 1-0, Texas. Ahhh, Hiroki, perhaps you need to be boring. I apologize. Kinsler comes up again, and this seems like a good time to note that with a right-handed batter ahead or even in the count, Kuroda basically becomes a two-pitch pitcher — slider, sinker. He’s sticking with the sinker against Kinsler, who keeps fouling it away and seems on the verge of hitting something really hard. But Kuroda goes for broke with a tailing slider, and Kinsler draws the walk. Andrus is ready to battle, too, and Kuroda is using most of his attention to keep Kinsler close, which doubles as an effective way to keep the batter off balance. It works like a charm here; Andrus strikes out on a lovely dying SINKER (gasp!), and Kinsler gets caught stealing. Patience, patience, patience.

If we go back to the inning-by-inning data, Darvish is pretty weak in the third, too, with a 5.06 ERA. But Gardner is putty in his hands, looking at an array of curves and sliders before watching a backdoor hook — “it was wiiiiide open,” says Busby — for strike three. Gardner complains, but replay shows it was all over the outside corner. Darvish is starting to look like Superman, but Ichiro is his Kryptonite. This time, the Yankee makes great contact again, but Martin in center field makes a sliding catch to rob his hit. Cano’s up now, and Darvish doesn’t make the same mistake of dealing a straight fastball with the first pitch. It’s the cutter instead, for a ball, and now Cano has to sit back and watch the Darvish show. It includes our second EEPHUS of the night, and on 3-1 he gets him to pull a weak grounder on an outside curve. That, along with the sinking fastball, is what he should be throwing Cano every time — the man has a weakness for all things low and outside.

Fourth Inning: Sinker, Cruz, groundout. Sinker, Beltre, grounder to third (error on Adams). Sinker, Pierzynski, grounder that goes through for a single. Kuroda makes a brief foray into slider territory, but Lance Berkman rifles a single past Cano. Undeterred, he tries another on an 0-1 to Moreland, and this time he gets a grounder for an out. Unfortunately, a run scores. 2-0, Texas. Kuroda responds by trying to retire Murphy on a couple splitters, but he’s throwing them in the dirt, and it takes yet another sinker to yield a groundout.

I contacted the good folks at ESPN Stats & Info to find out how Darvish fared in terms of innings pitched per start and pitches thrown per start, wondering if his sky-high strikeout rate takes a toll on his longevity. And it does, to an extent — he leads MLB with 108.7 pitches per start, but is “only” 15th with 6.76 IP per start. Cliff Lee is the leader in that last category, with 7.4 innings per start.

There will be no strikeout for Darvish against Hafner, though; Darvish tries the delightful EEPHUS, and Hafner delightfully crushes it into the seats. It came in at 68 mph and went off his bat at 94 mph. The eephus giveth, the eephus taketh away. But then Darvish is back to his former self, retiring Overbay on a fly to left and getting a grounder off an apparent sinker to Almonte (error on Beltre).

Then comes the sickest pitch of the night, a 1-0 slider to Nix with nasty tailing action, which sets up a slow curve Nix can only stare at, and a fastball that produces a lineout to center. Adams then falls behind 1-2, which almost guarantees a slider or four-seamer. Darvish throws three sliders to bring it to 3-2, and walks him with a four-seamer. It’s clear, with 70 pitches thrown, that Darvish did not bring his best stuff tonight, though he gets out with no more damage.

Fifth Inning: Last time up, Martin hit a fastball over the fence, and this time he does it to a hanging slider. Kuroda can’t win. Watching the replay, “hanging” isn’t really the right word; he practically put it on a tee. Like a lot of sinkerball pitchers, Kuroda has an exceptionally low home run rate (obvious explanation: Batters tend to top the ball when it sinks), which makes it surprising that the same guy got him twice tonight. Two batters later, Kuroda gets Andrus to 0-2, teases him with two sliders breaking out of the zone, and works a groundout with a sinker. That is classic Kuroda, the imperturbable workhorse we know and love. He loads up on sliders against Cruz, throwing five in six pitches to give him a different look from the inning before, and he earns a strikeout for his work.

Darvish has to face Gardner and the top of the Yankee order, and on a 1-1 count his slider stays up just a bit too high, and Gardner adds to the home run fest with a liner that clears the wall in right. 3-2, Texas. As a Yankee fan, I’m glad to see it. As a pitchers’ duel diarist, WHAT IS HAPPENING? THIS IS MADNESS! Darvish falls behind Ichiro yet again, but gets lucky when his Japanese counterpart flies out to right on another slider with weak movement. Against Cano, he smartly starts with a cut fastball, can’t finish off an 0-2 advantage and eventually loses him with a walk. It’s a brilliant eight-pitch at-bat for Cano, who runs Darvish’s pitch count to 89 and ensures he won’t go deep into this game. Darvish K’s Overbay on a great cutter that runs in on his hands and gets an Almonte groundout to end the inning, but he’s clearly not himself. At 100 pitches, he might even be done. What gives? Didn’t somebody tell him this was a pitchers’ duel diary start?

Sixth Inning: Meanwhile, Kuroda might actually be settling into a groove! He gets Beltre down 0-2 and throws his best pitch of the night, a slider that just disappears somewhere far, far to the left. Beltre flails, Pierzynski grounds out on the first pitch, and a sinker-slider-fastball-splitter-splitter combo is good enough to fool Berkman into a swinging strikeout. The last pitch of that at-bat might have been the only good splitter he’s thrown all night. Never count out the Hiroki Express!

Darvish is back and ready to save his duel victory. But what happens on the first pitch to Nix? BOMB! Just an awful, awful hanging slider to the righty, who jacked it out to left. We are now in a tie ballgame, and a tie duel. With Kuroda staging a late charge and Darvish surely about to receive the ol’ heave-ho, I don’t like the big man’s chances. But he fools Adams on a 1-2 slider that catches the corner for a backward K, silencing me here on my couch for at least one more batter. But then Stewart singles on pitch no. 110 — you guessed it, a hanging breaking ball — and Ron Washington ambles out to the mound with the Arlington hook.

Seventh Inning: For my money, all Kuroda has to do is come away with an out or two, give up no more runs, and he’s got the duel win. Let’s see if he can hack it.

He hasn’t thrown many curves tonight, but a rare example fools Moreland, a fierce sinker begets a swing-and-miss, and the second effective splitter of the night sends Moreland back to the bench as the fourth strikeout victim in the last five batters. Kuroda starts Murphy with another curve for a looking strike, and a follow-up sinker is good enough to produce a weak grounder and out number two. That brings up Martin, ravenous for a third homer, and Joe Girardi decides that Kuroda’s 99 pitches are quite enough.

THUS ENDS THE DUEL. KURODA WINS. (And so do the Yankees, on a walk-off jack by Ichiro!)

Marichal-Spahn Score

5.9. Our weakest to date.

This Week’s Lesson

Nobody steals Ichiro’s shine!

Filed Under: MLB, New York Yankees, Shane Ryan, Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere