The first time I saw Darvish pitch was in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, in Phoenix. He pitched for the Japanese team, and he gathered quite a crowd of scouts. (Coincidentally, another highly prized international player, Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes was in the same tournament, playing for Cuba.)
Darvish's command was less than spectacular in that game, but his athletic ability and pitching prowess were on display for all to see. In reality, he looked like a thrower and not a pitcher at that early stage of his career. He had little idea where his pitches were headed. He showed high velocity, with a wide variety of pitches in his vast repertoire. It was evident that he was raw, with tremendous upside. He lacked experience and needed development.
Scouts registered his performance in both written reports and in the back of their minds. Though Darvish was scouted heavily in Japan, teams also remembered him from his appearance in the U.S.
Since beginning with Texas this spring, Darvish has shown the type of quality arm and pitch variety that caused so much interest in his availability. He throws several fastballs, including those that sink, those that rise and those that bear in on hitters.
The 91 mph to 93 mph velocity on his fastball isn't anywhere near the range of Justin Verlander. When he throws his fastballs, as with Verlander, it is the movement that makes the difference. If needed, Darvish can bring his fastball as high as 95 mph with little effort. Velocity becomes secondary when Darvish can choose from among a six- or eight-pack of pitches he continues to perfect. After he shows the fastball, he can select from a host of pitches to keep hitters off balance and guessing. His expansive repertoire is what will help make him special.
Darvish seems to use any pitch, at any count. Of course the fastballs are key, but he actually has a fast curveball and a slower curveball. He has a changeup and a very effective slider. He has smooth mechanics, with a clean, forward delivery and finish.
In the outings I saw, Darvish lost and regained command and control quickly. Instead of showing frustration, he stayed within himself and rebounded. He went from poor location to perfect from one batter to the next. That inconsistency could potentially lead to productive offensive innings, but more often than not, he escaped severe damage with an unhittable pitch that resulted in a swing-and-miss third strike. The inconsistency could also lead to some high pitch counts, an issue that must be monitored closely.
Interestingly, Darvish pitched entirely from the stretch in his first spring game. Subsequently, he pitched from a normal windup. He has indicted that he is comfortable using both, and has said there is no particular factor that determines which type of delivery he will use from game to game.
One trend I noticed was the differential between Darvish's ability handling right-handed versus left-handed hitters. He looks to be devastating against righties. He uses pitches that jam hitters, or he throws breaking balls that leave hitters totally off balance and flailing at the ball.
In contrast, lefties have a better and longer look at the ball, and to my observation, they see pitches that allow them to extend their arms and drive the ball. Darvish's pitches to lefties seem to move into the hitting zone. The righty-lefty differential is one that opposing teams may expose and exploit.
Without question, Darvish is an exciting pitcher who will make a huge impact as the Rangers attempt to repeat their American League championship. His physical presence, at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, is imposing enough. Add to that an ability to add and subtract velocity at will, change eye levels of hitters from pitch to pitch, and a calm and collected mound presence, and a picture develops of a high-quality 25-year-old pitcher who will eventually become the ace of the staff.
The Rangers have a wealth of pitchers they can call upon throughout the season. Depth in both the bullpen and rotation is a luxury few clubs can claim. The flexibility to have such power arms as Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz change roles this season is an offshoot of those riches. To begin the season, Ogando will work at the back end of the bullpen, and Feliz will be at the end of the rotation.
And there is more pitching on the way.
One of the bullpen pitchers who will help hold games for Darvish will be 22-year-old lefty Robbie Ross. The success Ross had in Spring Training tells the story of a player gaining attention and respect of his organization through solid performance and hard work. Other Rangers pitchers may have had more notoriety, but Ross won the job because he pitched well, showed excellent command and control, and got hitters out. In short, he became a surprise addition to the Rangers' bullpen.
A second-round selection in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, Ross showed an ability to collect outs with a sharp slider/cutter that he uses against right- or left-handed hitters. It's his best pitch among an arsenal that also includes a fastball and changeup.
Changing speeds is as important to Ross as his pitch selection. He isn't physically overpowering or intimidating, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds. He has been able to vary his fastball and slider/cutter from 86 mph or 87 mph to the mid-90s. Then, without changing his arm action, he can throw a changeup in the mid-70s. His mound demeanor and his ability to make pitches have allowed him to jump ahead in a pitching-rich organization.
Left-handed pitchers are premium assets. Shaping up to be more than a "situational lefty," Ross has a strong enough arm that he can be used for more than one or two batters at a time. Used almost exclusively as a starter in the Minor Leagues, Ross can easily serve in a long relief role or in any situation manager Ron Washington requires. As with Ogando, Ross' background and ability will allow him to make a spot start out of the bullpen if needed.
Ross has command that allows him to locate pitches and keep the ball down, resulting in ground-ball outs as well as swings and misses. That capability is highly valued when double-play ground balls are needed.
If there is any reason for concern, it might be his rather high-intensity delivery, which could cost him energy and strength. A bit rough around the edges with acceptable but unconventional arm action across his body, Ross isn't a picture of sound pitching mechanics. But he gets guys out. That's what matters.
Without question, the story of Rangers camp this spring was the arrival of Darvish, a special pitcher who will help generate excitement and be fun to watch. But Ross' ascension to a position on the staff is an important story as well. Both are representative of the depth and variety of solid pitchers available on the Rangers' roster.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.