Did you know Mike Trout is a great hitter? It’s true, he can really swing the bat. Yu Darvish is a very good pitcher in his own right. He struck out more batters than any other big league pitcher last year, 277 in total. Over the last two seasons, hitters mustered only a .207 average against Darvish, which is better than all but six starters in baseball.
Mike Trout is not “the league”, of course. As such, Mike Trout gets more hits and draws more walks than even the best hitters. He hits bad pitchers and good pitchers and generally does the stuff that makes some people sick of reading his name*. While hitters as a collective turn into Drew Stubbs when they face Yu Darvish, Mike Trout turns into…Mike Trout.
Against Darvish, Trout has four home runs, six walks and nine total hits in 34 plate appearances. Of course, a 34 PA sample isn’t much to go on as far as predicting the future. But Trout’s skills and abilities provide a difficult challenge for any pitcher, even one as skilled as Yu Darvish. Luckily for Rangers fans, Darvish is not taking the manhandling sitting down. This year, Darvish plans on making adjustments and attacking Mike Trout in a whole new way.
Darvish threw Trout all fastballs to not tip new plan: “My approach towards Trout is going to be a little bit different this year.” #Angels
— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) March 4, 2014
It isn’t uncommon for familiar foes set to square off regularly during the regular season. Especially when the match-up is so one sided. Trout himself noted he and Darvish have “a little rivalry” going. But what could Darvish have up his sleeve for Trout?
As it stands, Darvish takes a unique approach to facing the Angels outfielder. His vast toolbox of pitches gives him options against Trout that most others simply do not have. The first pitch against any batter is obviously key, as the notoriously patient hitter won’t just hack away at anything. Against Darvish, Trout hit two first-pitch home runs, both on fastballs over the heart of the plate.
Of the 34 times Trout stepped in against Yu Darvish, the Rangers starter offered a fastball or cutter 26 times. Trout swung at three of them, hitting two home runs and a single up the middle. Of the eight off-speed pitches (six sliders and two curves), Trout did not offer once. Eight takes, two for strikes.
This could be the best way for Darvish to switch up that way he attacks Trout. Yu is carefully working on his cutter a lot this spring, but getting breaking balls over the plate against Trout might be a great way to get him on the back foot, grabbing the crucial 0-1 count advantage.
As Sam Miller points out, first pitch curveballs might be last point of hope for pitchers against Trout. His plan, in 2012 and 2013, was spitting on all first pitch curveballs. So he did so, every single time a righty flipped one up for him.
While Darvish is tinkering and adjusting the way he does things, Trout is not one to rest on his laurels. The two-time MVP runner-up plans to be more aggressive in 2014, upping his aggression early in the count.
“A lot of counts last year, I’d be taking, seeing pitches. But I’m going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I’m going to be up there hacking. I’m going to be up there swinging.
Which is to say, if Darvish thinks he can just float in a curveball and jump ahead of the astute young outfielder…he’s got another thing coming.
Despite Trout’s success against Darvish, it isn’t a completely one-sided affair. Yu Darvish sent Trout back to the dugout muttering ten times in their 34 match ups. When Darvish succeeds against Trout, the pattern is clear – first pitch fastball for a strike. The great conundrum. Only once has Darvish battled back for the K after missing with the first pitch. Darvish only recovered to retire Trout six times after falling behind 1-0.
Wading through the pitch f/x data can be interesting but ultimately it’s only 34 plate appearances worth of pitches to mull over. The biggest takeway from studying this particular matchup is Mike Trout is the perfect hitter to combat Yu Darvish’s particular skill set. Darvish throws his pitches in the strike zone less than most pitchers. He relies on chases and weak contact from hitters badly fooled by his kitchen sink assortment of offerings.
Mike Trout chases fewer pitches than just about everybody in the league. He rarely goes outside the zone and swung at fewer pitches than any qualified hitter in baseball last year. When he does work inside the zone, Darvish makes his living more in the middle of the plate than the average pitcher. With his stuff, he can afford to do so – against most hitters.
If Darvish resolves to take a different tack against Mike Trout in 2014, I expect him to start with sliders or curveballs and then simply try to better execute with his cutter. The cutter is a key weapon for Darvish, a pitch he throws on the edges of the strike zone. Against Trout, execution has been as big a problem as strategy, with too many cutters and fastballs left on the meaty part of the inside half, rather than leaking over the outside corner as designed.
There is no playbook off which to work. It is a rare pitcher battling a rare hitter. If anybody was ever going to solve Mike Trout, it would be Yu Darvish. When the Rangers and Angels connect in May, it will be exciting to watch what the Rangers ace and coaching staff develop in their lab.
* – too bad.
Some stats and data via ESPN Stats & Info and Baseball Savant.