Welcome to the first 2014 Pitchers’ Duel Diary. Here we anticipate one excellent matchup and put it under the microscope to see what we can learn about the dark art of pitching. The analysis occasionally goes deep, and occasionally goes embarrassingly shallow. Along the way, we learn about baseball, love, and America. 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
Sonny “Boy” Gray (OAK) vs. Yu “Whirling” Darvish (TEX)
Bio: Age 27, righty, 6-foot-5, 216 pounds, born in Osaka, Japan
2014 Stats: 1-0, 1.61 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 9.32 K/9, 1.1 WAR
Pitches: Darvish is far and away the most interesting player to track in terms of pure variety. He has eight pitches that he throws with some regularity, including what is objectively the greatest pitch of all: the “slow curve,” a.k.a. THE EEPHUS. Darvish’s slow curve actually travels at about 70 mph, compared to his normal curve velocity of 80 mph, so it’s not actually an eephus at all. But if you think I’m going to miss a chance to use the word “eephus,” then you, my friend, are sadly mistaken. Eephus. His eclectic repertoire notwithstanding, Darvish throws his four-seam fastball almost half the time, a rate that goes up to 60 percent for the first pitch. His normal curve is the strikeout pitch against righties (36 percent), while he sticks to the four-seamer for lefties (61 percent).
Bio: Age 24, righty, 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, born in Nashville, college at Vanderbilt
2014 Stats: 3-1, 2.25 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 8.72 K/9, 0.8 WAR
Pitches: Gray, who was called up in the middle of last season, is best known as the youngster who outdueled Justin Verlander in Game 2 of last year’s ALDS, pitching eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 A’s win. (Verlander had his revenge in Game 5.)
Gray is young, but not unproven; since being called up, he’s seen his ERA rise above 3.00 just once, briefly, in 15 starts. He mixes things up nicely between three fastballs — straight, sinker, cutter — a curve he throws 28 percent of the time and the (very) occasional changeup. He also has a slider in his arsenal, but seems to have largely abandoned the pitch after July 2013.
When you look at the velocity of his pitches (around 95 mph for the hard fastball), you can see why he rarely throws a changeup — his cutter is the same speed, and moves horizontally in on lefties (in contrast to his other fastballs). His curve has great horizontal breaking action, and with two strikes on a batter, lefty or righty, he’ll use it half the time. When he gets behind in the count to righties, he becomes very predictable, with an 84 percent four-seam usage rate.
First Inning: It’s Darvish kicking it off with his first start in seven days, and he hits Coco Crisp with an array of fastballs, starting low and outside and moving up to work the count to 2-2, and then it’s on to the curves. After laying off one and fighting off another, Crisp is sent packing with a third consecutive curve. Jed Lowrie is next, and it’s the same routine. On a 2-1 count, Darvish’s four-seamer goes too high and Lowrie smashes one to the warning track, missing a home run by about 10 feet.
Darvish keeps Josh Donaldson reaching with outside fastballs (and maybe a cutter thrown in) until 1-2, tries to sneak a high heater by for the K, misses on a splitter and an outside curve, and gets the whiff on a second curve. The fastball-to-offspeed formula is established, and it’ll be interesting to see if he switches it up the second time around.
Now it’s Gray. He falls behind Michael Choice on all fastballs, and, as is his habit, keeps coming with the heat. He manages to get to 3-2, but his seventh consecutive fastball is low, and Choice walks … perfect game over.
Gray changes the ol’ eye level for Elvis Andrus with a high fastball, and gets a fielder’s choice groundout. Then he goes straight at Prince Fielder with fastballs until he gets a ground ball into the teeth of the shift. It’s a double play, and a scoreless inning, and by my count, Gray threw nothing but four-seamers.
Second Inning: Darvish freezes Brandon Moss with a beautiful first-pitch changeup, which is really rare against lefties, and Moss never recovers. On an 0-1 pitch to Alberto Callaspo … EEPHUS! Our first slow curve, and it just misses the outside corner. But it messes with Callaspo. Darvish tosses masterful variety at Callapso for a K, with the only downside being that he is throwing a lot of pitches. John Jaso is next, and he catches up with an outside four-seamer for the first hit of the game — too high, too much of the plate by Darvish.
Josh Reddick gets a knee-buckling curve to start him off, falls behind on a four-seamer fastball (it’s super hard to tell the difference between Darvish’s four-seamer and sinker, as they travel about the same speed and are about three inches apart, on average, in vertical movement), fights back to a full count, but flails weakly at an outside curve, grounding out to end the inning. Darvish is clean, but he has thrown 39 pitches.
More fastballs from Gray, but he’s done a great job mixing up the height, going from high to low to get Adrian Beltre into an 0-2 hole, and then, hey! We get a curve, and a sinker, and a change! All three fouled off before a high fastball jams him up, resulting in a weak groundout to short.
Uneventful stuff with Alex Rios, who sees two low fastballs and flies the second out to right. Same with Mitch Moreland, who rips a high 1-0 fastball, but can’t get it to fall. Gray is out, and he has about half of Darvish’s pitch count.
Third Inning: FanGraphs has a fun new “pace” state for pitchers, and, unfortunately for me, Darvish is the eighth-slowest pitcher in baseball, with 25.9 seconds between each pitch. (David Price is the slowest, and Mark Buehrle is the fastest.)
Daric Barton leads off, and Darvish is picking away, spotting two fastballs on the corner and nearly getting Barton to chase a third. A curve almost gets him, too, and Barton’s survival act ends with him frozen on a curve. Eric Sogard sees a rare first-pitch cutter, and faces down fastballs and curves to force Darvish’s sixth full count in his first nine batters. Unlike the others, Sogard works a walk when Darvish can’t fool him on an inside fastball, and we have a pitch-count crisis.
Coco again. He sees a first-pitch curve, and then another, both outside. Darvish is now having serious trouble locating his offspeed pitches, and you have to wonder if the long layoff has taken the edge off. He fights back to yet another full count with fastballs, his only recourse at this point, and after fighting off two more fastballs, Crisp dunks a curve into center field that just falls for a hit. And then, oh no …
MOUND VISIT. Mike Maddux’s talk does no good, and Darvish plunks Lowrie with a cutter to load the bases. He opts for a slider against Donaldson, who slaps at it and sends it between short and third for a single. Two runs score, and Moss adds to the damage by ripping a high four-seamer for another single.
With the bases loaded, though, Moss stupidly gets picked off first, and the rally dies when Darvish manages to locate a few fastballs against Callaspo, finally getting a fly out to right on a 3-2 curve.
Gray is not messing around with Donnie Murphy. He peppers in a fastball and a curve to get him in an 0-2 hole, and K’s him with a beautiful 82 mph curve on the outside corner.
Leonys Martin only needs to see two fastballs before slapping a single into left. Gray enters a brief wild spell, missing to Robinson Chirinos twice before plunking him in the shoulder with a fastball. But he recovers, freezing Choice with a first-pitch curve and coming back to Uncle Charlie again, lower this time, to get Choice to ground into the inning-ending double play. No runs, 34 pitches … seriously efficient.
Fourth Inning: Darvish has always been a strikeout pitcher who uses lots of pitches, but this year, that hasn’t kept him from being among the league leaders in innings pitched per start. Before this game, he averaged lasting into the eighth inning. But it is just not his night, and whether the seven-day rust is to blame or he’s just not on top form, there’s no recovering at this point. Jaso singles, Reddick triples after working a favorable count and scores on a sac fly, and when Sogard walks on four pitches, that’s it for Darvish, who gets yanked in what is by far his earliest exit of the year. Sorry, Yu. Sorry if this feature jinxed you.
It’s the Sonny Gray show now, as far as we’re concerned, and his seemingly basic fastball-curve combo elicits three consecutive groundouts from Andrus, Fielder, and Beltre. The heart of the order doesn’t faze him.
The highlight is a first-pitch curve to Beltre that actually makes him turn away, afraid it might hit him, before the ball breaks over the heart of the plate. There’s that horizontal action we were talking about. How deep could he go?
Fifth Inning: According to FanGraphs, Gray has the third-most valuable curve in baseball, after Adam Wainwright and Jose Fernandez … good company. It’s potent even when it’s far outside the zone, as Rios demonstrates by nearly striking out on a ball that lands roughly five feet in front of him. It’s good that he didn’t, though, because it gives us a chance to see Gray use his fading 87 mph changeup as a strikeout pitch, and it’s truly a thing of beauty. We said Gray is a bit predictable when he’s behind, but when he’s in front? Lethal. He only throws a first-pitch strike 55 percent of the time, and you have to think that’s a number the A’s would love to see him improve. But maybe his control is good enough to compensate, as he shows while coming back from a 2-0 hole on Moreland by mixing up high and low fastballs, getting a groundout on a strange, chest-high curve. Gray throws a couple of sinkers to Murphy, the one pitch he can’t quite locate, but he manages to come back with a 96 mph four-seamer to get the final groundout. Terrific stuff.
Sixth Inning: More curve-porn from Gray, who K’s Martin on an outside hook that sneaks back from the batter’s box to the corner. Somehow Chirinos gets a “hit” on what is clearly an E-6, reaching second and then third on a wild pitch, but gets stranded when Choice lines out on a 1-1 pitch and Andrus grounds out to third on the same pitch (after what looks like a sinker actually goes behind him, producing a classic puzzled look from the batter). What’s really impressive with Gray is how he challenges every hitter, a luxury afforded by a mid-90s fastball. The efficiency has paid off; he has 75 pitches through six innings.
Seventh Inning: Still with that 4-0 lead, Gray isn’t messing around. He goes high with a fastball to Fielder, low with another errant splitter, and then up and in, getting a weak fly out to left. Every pitch was in a different zone, and while it wasn’t exactly “challenging” Fielder, the proximity to the strike zone and the lack of guile served as a sort of invite — hit it hard if you can. He’s all over the inside part of the plate with Beltre, starting with a low fastball and following with a high changeup, sitting him down with what might be his most impressive pitch of the night — a cutter that looked like it was tailing in, but managed to halt its left-to-right movement enough to hit the inside corner. No need for qualifications — it’s easily his most impressive pitch of the night, and a true “holy shit” moment. Beltre looks like he’s just seen a ghost. After Rios singles, it’s another brilliant sequence to Moreland — inside fastball, fouled curve, and a final curve, 81 mph, that dives low into Moreland’s feet. His swing misses the ball by about a foot, and we’re on to the eighth.
Eighth Inning: Pinch hitter Josh Wilson grounds out on the first pitch, and after falling behind Martin 2-0, Gray nibbles at the inside corner with a fastball, gets an angry Martin to whiff at another curve, and then does it again for the strikeout. We’re now within range of Gray’s first complete game in the majors. Chirinos is off his rhythm almost from the start, and on Gray’s 99th pitch, he grounds out to short on — you guessed it — a two-strike curve.
Ninth Inning: HERE WE GO. Shin-Soo Choo isn’t the answer to the Rangers’ prayers, and he is no match for a pair of Gray curves as he flies out to left. We’re two outs away from the shutout, and though we won’t get anymore strikeout brilliance, an Andrus groundout and a Fielder lineout get the job done. What a start to the 2014 Pitchers’ Duel Diary series!
THUS ENDS THE DUEL. Gray wins in a brutal KO.
7.2. Very one-sided, but man, did Gray deliver. See you next week.