Darin Downs is surely enjoying his second season in Taiwan a lot more than he did his first. The lefty is off to a great start in 2017 with the Lamigo Monkeys and sits near the top of every major pitching category. But pitching in the CPBL hasn’t always come easy for the 32-year-old.
Downs made his league debut on August 6, 2016, with the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions. He made 10 starts towards the end of the season and posted an 0-5 record with a 6.75 ERA and a 1.85 WHIP. Not numbers that would usually earn you another contract in a league where each team can only roster three imports.
He threw well in winter ball, however, and the Lamigo Monkeys brought him on board in the offseason. But it didn’t get much better for Downs in spring training as he gave up three earned runs in 1.1 innings (two appearances) to Samurai Japan in an exhibition series, and then got hit around for six earned runs in three innings of a spring training game against the Chinatrust Brothers.
“I felt like I had some good outings, some decent outings last year, but they got overshadowed by a couple bad ones. Then the rest were just kind of average, at best,” Downs said of his rough welcome to the CPBL. “And yeah I struggled this preseason, but historically I don’t do well in spring training in general.”
Lamigo fans were perhaps a bit worried, and rightly so. Yet as soon as the regular season began, Downs flipped a switch and he has been lights out ever since.
So far in 2017, he’s 5-0 with a 2.56 ERA (2nd in the CPBL) and a 1.14 WHIP (3rd in the CPBL) in nine starts. He has 61 strikeouts (2nd in the CPBL) in 56.1 innings and just 15 walks. His ERA+ is 189.38 (3rd in the CPBL) and his FIP is 2.86 (5th in the CPBL).
Talk about a turnaround.
When a pitcher makes as drastic of an improvement as Downs has, it’s natural to think that he’s throwing harder or getting more movement on his pitches. But he doesn’t see that as the reason for his success so far this season.
“I don’t think so,” he answered when asked if he has noticed an uptick in his velocity or if his pitches are moving more. “I do think I’m making better pitches, more specifically with guys on base. I’m getting ahead, I’m attacking more.”
Basically, Downs has learned what it takes to pitch in the CPBL. It also helps that he’s in a much better situation this season.
In 2016, the former fifth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs began the year with the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League before having his contract purchased by the Uni Lions. He then arrived in Tainan in the dead of summer and was put on the mound to mop up innings for a team that wasn’t competitive.
Overall, it was a tough situation to be put into: It was his first time playing pro ball in Asia and he had no idea what he was in for. But, so far, 2017 has been very different.
“I feel like I’m pitching better, obviously. I feel comfortable. It was nice to be here for spring training and get to know everybody. Last year helped as well, getting comfy with the league and the hitters and everything about it: the travel, the food, the weather. That’s all played into me being a lot more comfortable coming into this season.”
It’s not just his comfort level that has made him successful this year. His experience on the mound in 2016 taught him a lot about the league and how pitchers can do well in the CPBL.
“I know how to approach the game. This is a hitter’s league. You’re not going to go out and the score is going to be 2-1 or 2-0 every night. Guys are going to get on base, they’re going to get hits. Mentally, it’s a grind. You know you might give up three, but you can still go six innings and that’s a good start. So just taking it pitch by pitch, inning by inning.”
“It helps being comfortable and knowing what you’re getting into and how the game is,” Downs continued. “You give up two in the first or the second and it’s not the end of the world. You can still go five, six or seven innings and give up three and that’s a good start here. A really good start. So, this year I just focus on taking it pitch by pitch. No matter if it’s hot or it’s raining out, I’m just trying to make each pitch.”
One key stat that pops out for Downs in 2017 is his ground ball to fly ball ratio, which sits at 1.579, fourth best among CPBL starters and a drastic improvement on last season’s 1.326. With the CPBL being an offensive league with a juicy ball, keeping it on the ground is vital to a pitcher’s success.
“That helps,” he agreed. “I think it’s the result of me pitching a little bit better and commanding the zone a bit more instead of nibbling and worrying about giving up a hit. I’m attacking, I’m trying to attack early, and continuing to make pitches, no matter what the count. I’m getting some softer contact, whereas last year I was giving up more hard contact. You just can’t give up hard contact all game and expect to do well. If I’m commanding better, with my fastball especially, it helps.”
The Southfield, Michigan native is a student of the game and is constantly working to improve himself. Though he’s certainly much more comfortable in 2017, Downs realizes he still has lots of room left to grow and he points to his last start as an example of that.
“It was raining, it was hot and it was kind of miserable,” he said of his May 19th outing where he gave up two earned runs and seven hits over six innings. “I was falling behind guys, I was giving up base hits, I gave up a couple walks, I kept getting into jams. There were guys on base and that’s not what I want. I want to attack. I want to force contact. And when I get to two strikes I want to get guys out.”
Look for Downs to be more aggressive this weekend as he takes on the Chinatrust Brothers. And as for his objective for the rest of the season?
“Obviously, one goal everyone has is to try and stay here all season. But I’m really just trying to take it one game at a time. I’m trying to keep building and refining as I see the teams four, five or six times. They’re starting to make adjustments and I need to be able to be on the fly with that.”
Downs after winning Game MVP. The Oliver Photo