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How the Dodgers turned Yu Darvish into a better version of himself

HOUSTON -- Dave Roberts calls him the sane one.

Over the course of the postseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers' skipper has joked a couple of times about the relative "crazy" factor in his starting rotation:
Rich Hill, a consummate gentleman off the field, is insanely competitive on it, even throwing tantrums when he strikes out at the plate even though he's not a good hitter and no one expects him to be.

Clayton Kershaw is known for his hyper-intense work ethic, an off-center trait that causes him to do things like warm up in 100-plus degree heat in a fairly heavy jacket, as he did at Dodger Stadium before his first-ever World Series start.

Alex Wood, well, it's not quite clear what's off about him, but Roberts says he's "sneaky crazy."

As for Yu Darvish, L.A.'s starter in Friday's pivotal Game 3 at Minute Maid Park, Roberts said he's the most normal of the bunch. The closest thing the Dodgers' rotation has to a vanilla guy. It's easy to see why he thinks so.

When asked about his even keel, Darvish simply said, "It's just who I am. [It's] my character."

Darvish displays an implacable demeanor on the mound and his translated responses in media conferences come straight from the "Crash Davis Guide to Non-Answers." The only time we've seen him get emotional this October was when he drew a bases-loaded walk during the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.

Whether he shows it or not, Darvish has lots of reasons to be excited above and beyond his pending World Series debut with the Fall Classic tied 1-1.

"Any games that we play right now are important," Darvish said. "Not necessarily first game, second game, third game. Any game we play right now is important."

This winter, Darvish will hit free agency as the most coveted pitcher on the market and perhaps the most coveted player overall. Not a bad position to be in, financially speaking or otherwise. And he will hit the open market in the wake of improved numbers that, because they can be traced to specific mechanical tweaks, should be more difficult to dismiss as mere variability among the analytically inclined front offices of today.

Darvish was acquired in a last-minute trade deadline swap with the Texas Rangers. It was a splashy move for the front-running Dodgers but, at the time, Darvish had a 4.01 ERA, more appropriate for a No. 3 than for someone the team hoped could slot behind Clayton Kershaw at the front of the rotation.

Let's step back for a moment and try to imagine what Darvish was looking at when he was traded. He knew that he was going to a big media market with sky-high expectations and a crucial offseason looming ahead. He turned 31 years old a couple of weeks after the trade. When he arrived in L.A., he had thrown 2,050 innings between the majors and Japan with 2,210 strikeouts and a 2.54 ERA.

So, naturally, the Dodgers asked him to change. And why not? Few teams have had as many success stories in helping players find new levels of production, a trait we've seen in action over and over this October in the exploits of breakout stars such as Chris Taylor and Justin Turner.

"I mean, I got information," Darvish said during the division series. "But I've been pitching really well, and right now I'm trying to focus on what I do and not to worry about what [opponents] do. So basically I want to pitch to my strengths.

"Of course they gave me information, so I'm going to pitch basically with my strength. And with that little bit of information that they gave to me, I think I can use it, and I think it's going to be very helpful."

The thing is, Darvish was much more accomplished than the type of player you'd associate with a need for an overhaul. And with so much on the line for his career, asking him to make significant mechanical tweaks is akin to asking him to take quite a leap of faith in an organization he'd just joined.

Yet, leap Darvish did. And with each passing outing, his willingness to listen seems to be paying off.

"It's a lot to take in, but he's just so athletic," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "He's so intelligent, and he competes. So now you take the information part and you take kind of the biomechanics part and just working on his bullpens and trying to have success in a major league game, which is tough. But he's been really diligent about trying to figure it out."

What were these mysterious tweaks? They are various and hard to detect by a layperson because Darvish's repertoire is as large as any pitcher in the game. But they have to do with arm slot, simplification of that diverse repertoire, pitch sequencing and even the tempo with which he pitches.

"Simplifying things, his pitch mix, we did as an organization," Roberts said. "I think that he really bought into and embraced it. And also with the mechanics that [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt and he worked through, and so he is able to repeat his delivery right now."

Let's put some numbers to some of this by comparing Darvish's 2017 season through Sept. 12 to what he has done since, including the playoffs. It's an arbitrary cut-off, coinciding with his current stretch of good starts, and the post-Sept. 12 sample is small. Keep that in mind as we get into results, but also remember we'll step from there into stylistic metrics that are more meaningful to what could happen Friday.

The results have been better for Darvish over his past five outings to a startling degree. His ERA went from 4.25 before Sept 12 to 0.88 after. His OPS allowed fell from .726 to .423. His strikeout rate increased from 26.9 percent to 31.5 while his walk rate nearly disappeared: 8.2 percent to 1.8. Again, it's only five outings and any number of pitchers put up a hot streak that last five starts during a typical season.

What we're more interested in is the stylistic- and tendency-driven indicators that might have shifted because of the suggestions Darvish got from the Dodgers. We chose our before/after cut-off dates because it seems reasonable to posit that the start in which Darvish took off coincided with the successful integration of these suggestions.

Since the start of Darvish's hot streak, his percentage of fastballs has dropped from 53 percent to 39. In place of the missing heaters, Darvish is throwing his cutter about 17 percent more often. But Darvish has been getting better results with his more selectively spotted fastball, with an OPS allowed that has dropped from .834 to .420.

Using a lower arm slot, Darvish's velocity on his fastball has remained roughly the same. But his break-angle has decreased even as his spin rate has gone up, perhaps partially explaining his ability to stay more consistently in the strike zone.

"I think that even when he came over, there was a lot of him trying to feel his way through a start, where now he can just worry about executing pitches," Roberts said. "That's got to lead to clarity. Outside of going into kind of how we're going to attack these guys, I think that he's in a great place. And he says it himself, that he's very comfortable and confident."

These tweaks could prove crucial against an Astros team that knows Darvish well from his time in the AL West. However, Houston manager A.J. Hinch feels that the postseason version of Darvish, with his wide array of pitches, would have been different anyway.

"We've noticed [the changes] through video, but we haven't seen him [live] yet," Hinch said. "Again, there's more unpredictability around game plans and approaches in the postseason than ever. You can go in saying, 'This is how he's thrown you in the past' and he can pitch you completely different. We saw that with [Masahiro] Tanaka in New York."

Still, in his initial preparations for Game 3, Hinch and his staff are preparing for the best version of Darvish.

"For us, we need to evaluate what our game plan is going to be," Hinch said. "It's going to be very simple: We want to get a pitch to hit. He's got 15 pitches you have to deal with, from different angles, and he can reach back and have velocity.

"Tomorrow is going to be a big start for him, I know he'll be at his best. But if you can get him in the strike zone, like any pitcher in the big leagues, we've done damage to every good pitcher in the strike zone. When we expand, it's tough."

Darvish has a detached way about him during media gatherings, even accounting for the fact that his answers are translated from his native Japanese. The answers are short, even curt. The sum aggregation of Darvish's quotes this postseason could have been paraphrased by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote, "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."

In other words, Darvish is not too keen on explaining himself.

Roberts often speaks of Darvish in a way that suggests he's a lot different without the presence of cameras and microphones, even going so far as to suggest that Darvish may have to wrestle his emotions when he takes to the mound on Friday.

"I think he's just really taking in the moment, taking in, just watching the approach of the hitters, being a good teammate," Roberts said. "He hasn't done anything crazy. Yu's really focused on pitching well tomorrow night."

One minor and overlooked subplot of this series is that it pits this season's top trade-deadline pitching additions in Darvish for the Dodgers and Houston's Game 2 starter, Justin Verlander, who has been dominant through the postseason. The rumor mill a couple of months ago floated the idea of Verlander joining Los Angeles, where he not so long ago purchased a house. Verlander said it was not a thing on his mind.

"For me, my whole time in Detroit, I was really focused on being in Detroit," Verlander said. "That's why when it came down to a last-minute decision, I had a lot of homework to do and a lot of information to try to decipher, because I hadn't allowed myself to think about it very much. L.A. is fantastic and great, but I hadn't put my mind to specific organizations that I would prefer over others."

Verlander pitched well in Game 2 but nevertheless, it took his team seven runs to secure the win. A dominant outing, or two, this series for Darvish could convince L.A. fans that they got the right guy.

In the end, Friday's start for Darvish isn't about showcasing his new technique or wooing free-agent suitors or showing Verlander what's what. It's about helping his team, and himself, to a much-longed-for World Series title. And he hopes that even though the Astros have seen him before that they will be thrown off because they haven't seen this version of him.

"I really don't change much going into tomorrow's outing, but to them I'm a different kind of pitcher, different type of pitcher in my pitch selection," Darvish said. "So they feel I may have a different approach."

If it works, now that would be crazy.

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