HOUSTON -- The Rangers have tried to do everything possible to assist pitcher Yu Darvish in making a successful transition to Major League Baseball. He has his own personal trainer and interpreter, and his own guidelines for dealing with annoying outside distractions.
The Rangers made a substantial $108 million investment in Darvish, and the porcelain treatment is designed so they can extract as much return as possible. They fared fairly well in 2012 and hope to do even better this season now that Darvish is "relaxed" and "comfortable."
Those are the buzzwords that were used repeatedly in Spring Training, both by Darvish and others, to describe his state of mind going into his second Major League season. He might even be more confident, but even Darvish had trouble with that one.
"It's hard to quantify how much confidence I have compared to last year," Darvish said. "But with one year under my belt, I am more relaxed and, after one year in America, I am more comfortable."
That seems understandable, because Darvish did have to go through much last season after leaving Japan, where he was a superstar in every sense of the word. He was merely an All-Star in the United States, which still should be viewed as a praiseworthy accomplishment considering he had to adapt to a new baseball and mound, the Texas heat, big league hitters, a new culture and a completely new regimen.
Darvish wasn't Cy Young Award material -- an honor that has eluded the Rangers and is prominent as an incentive in Darvish's contract -- but he was 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 191 innings over 29 starts. Even though he was an All-Star, the last eight starts were the collective best as Darvish went 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA down the stretch before losing to the Orioles in an American League Wild Card game.
The Rangers eagerly await to see how much better Darvish can be his second time around, and that begins on Tuesday night against the Astros in his first start of the new year.
"I expect him to begin where he left off last season," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He had a nice spring and I see more confidence there ... more confidence that he knows what's ahead of him rather than all the question marks. He is the one pitcher you can truly say he got better with every start last year."
The numbers from the "nice" spring were certainly that. Darvish posted a 1.98 ERA, opponents hit .167 off him and he had three walks and 15 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings. That doesn't include his last start against Mexico City on Thursday, when he pitched four scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out seven.
"I know this spring he seemed very comfortable just being on the club, what he was doing with the competition," general manager Jon Daniels said. "There was a lot for him to adjust to last year. He did a tremendous job of it. He seems to really be comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with the club, comfortable with the staff, etc. We're looking forward to a big year from him."
A few reasons are given for Darvish's strong finish. He cut down his walks and he cut down the number of different pitches he tried to throw in a game. Darvish also cut down on worrying about what others thought and what was going on around him, and just focused on "being Darvish" as manager Ron Washington put it.
"Darvish has been on a mission since being in the United States," Washington said. "It was just a matter of what trail he was on. Now he is on a trail for himself and the Texas Rangers, and not doing it for everybody else. When you're relaxed, that means you've got confidence in what you are capable of doing. He never lacked for confidence, it was just a matter of him figuring out what to do."
Reducing the number of walks was a good place to start.
Darvish averaged 4.97 walks per nine innings through his first 21 starts. That left him with a 4.57 ERA while opponents hit .238 off him. Over the final eight starts, Darvish cut that to 2.35 walks per nine innings, and more strikes did not mean more hits. Darvish held opponents to a .176 batting average.
Part of his effectiveness came from resisting throwing every pitch in his arsenal. Darvish can throw almost any pitch invented, and even let fly a knuckleball in the bullpen this spring as a joke. But he stopped throwing every different pitch during a game and stuck with what was working for him that day.
"If a guy has 29 pitches, he doesn't have to try and throw 29 different pitches," Washington said. "When a pitcher is warming up in the bullpen, not every pitch is working. You've got to know what is working. You don't change until the other team makes you change."
These are the lessons that Darvish takes into the second season while enjoying the nirvana of a relaxed state of mind. Throw it all together and the Rangers are expecting a big year from him. Darvish, as always, backs away from adding to the high expectations.
"Like I always say, my goal is to stay healthy, stay in the rotation, help my team win and contribute as much as possible," Darvish said.
He returns to work on Tuesday night against the Astros.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.