Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm. He reached down to touch his rosin bag. He stood up and brushed a stray lock of hair out of his face with his glove. Then, finally he took the sign from catcher Victor Caratini.
By the time Darvish started his windup, nearly a half-minute had elapsed since his last pitch. The result? A cutter on the edge of the zone that Nicholas Castellanos popped up to shallow center field.
“I think he's just at a point where he’s really comfortable in who he is,” Cubs manager David Ross said after the Cubs’ 3-0 win at Cincinnati, in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader. “There's so much to be said for that.”
Who is Darvish? In his words, a “slow guy.”
Darvish recorded his sixth straight win on Saturday, tied for a career best. In his past six starts, he has a 0.92 ERA. Darvish was better starting pitcher Saturday, even with fellow NL Cy Young candidate Trevor Bauer on the mound for the Reds.
When asked to explain the success he’s had since the second half of last season, Darvish doesn’t point to a new pitch or a shift in mentality. Instead, he brings up his plodding pace.
“After I came here (to the U.S.), guys wanted me to throw as quickly as possible,” Darvish said, “and that didn’t work for me. If I focus on that, I can’t focus on my pitch.”
In June or July of last year, Darvish said, he had a conversation with Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy about his tempo. Hottovy agreed that he should do what makes him comfortable on the mound.
Darvish went from taking 25.4 seconds between pitches in 2012, according to FanGraphs, to 29.4 seconds last season. For reference, anything longer than 23.5 seconds is considered slow, so Darvish’s current tempo is positively glacial.
The results have been dramatic.
Last season, he posted 118 strikeouts in 13 starts after the All-Star break. He went five games straight, from July 30 to Aug. 21, without issuing a walk.
This year, more of the same: 52 strikeouts and just eight walks in seven starts.
“The mixture of the breaking balls, there's just such variances in the speeds and the action in basically all three of those,” Ross said, “the curveball, slider and cutter. And he can throw to both sides of the plate, difference speeds, so it's just really tough to size up. And you always have to respect the 97 (mph fastball) in his back pocket.”
By Darvish’s count, his arsenal includes 11 different pitches. His ability to control the speed and movement on individual pitches is part of his genius. But it also requires more thought every pitch. More thought requires more time.
“He'll run through a scouting report on his 'pen day and actually will (plan for) the hitters that he's going to face two or three days later,” Ross said. “So, he's prepared, he's smart, he knows what he wants to do.”
Darvish’s six shutout innings Saturday weren’t even one of Darvish’s more dominant performances of the season. But that was impressive in and of itself.
Darvish remained poised with runners in scoring position. The fifth inning provided the best example, as he allowed back-to-back singles to put runners on first and second. Then, Darvish struck out Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez.
But he seemed to be laboring as his pitch count neared 90. Mound visits by Caratini and Hottovy helped Darvish slow down even more, catch his breath and reset.
After walking Mike Moustakas on eight pitches to load the bases, Darvish got Freddy Galvis to ground out to Nico Hoerner at third base.
“I was thinking before the game, I can’t give them more than two runs,” Darvish said of squaring up against Bauer.”
Darvish gave the Reds none.