There it is. The Cubs finally made their big move for the off season. It should shock absolutely no one that move was for pitching. Almost every move the Cubs made this off season was about acquiring pitching. By signing Yu Darvish to a 6 year/$126 million deal ($150 million with incentives), the Cubs have locked up a formidable top of their rotation in Darvish, Jose Quintana, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. Their pitching talent is much deeper this year as well, rounding out the rotation with Tyler Chatwood. Mike Montgomery likely returns to the bullpen, but is more than capable of starting if necessary and there are even a few talented arms in the minor leagues.
As pitchers and catchers report in Mesa, let’s take a closer look at the new Cubs’ starter.
Darvish Key Stats
Yu Darvish has been a very good pitcher since signing with the Rangers after an exceptional career in Japan. Three things jump out looking at his major league numbers. The first thing is the innings. Darvish sprained his UCL early in spring training in 2015 and missed the entire season after having Tommy John surgery. He started 2016 on the 15-day disabled list as he continued to recover. 2017 was his first year throwing over 150 innings since 2013. The Cubs will have some flexibility with Montgomery able to start out of the pen, but it’s worth keeping an eye on Darvish’s innings.
Second, even though Darvish’s WAR has been declining since coming to the major leagues in 2012, by total WAR he’s still been a top 20 pitcher over that time period. In fact, he almost edges out Jake Arrieta. Admittedly, this is an imperfect comparison, Arrieta spent part of 2013 in the minor leagues, Darvish spent all of 2015 on the DL, however it’s still a useful snapshot of 20 of the most valuable pitchers in the game over the last six seasons. It’s particularly nice to see three current Cubs on the list.
Third, Yu Darvish is a strikeout machine. I’ll look at some of the reasons that’s true when we talk about his pitch selection, but before I get to that it’s worth noting that his 10.08 K/9 last year was the worst in his major league career and was still good for 12th overall among qualified starters. His career K/9 of 11.04 is first among active starters over his six years in the majors. The only other starter that had a higher K/9 over that period was the late Jose Fernandez (11.25). Which probably explains this:
Fewest games to 1,000 career strikeouts— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) February 10, 2018
1. Yu Darvish 128
2. Kerry Wood 134
Wrigley Field is a mercurial park that can shift from a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s park pretty rapidly depending on the wind off Lake Michigan. Darvish should have an edge there as a pitcher who is getting a lot of outs by the K rather than contact.
Derek Carty, who developed THE BAT system of projections ran some preliminary numbers for Darvish after the trade was announced. 3.58 is in line with Darvish’s career average ERA of 3.42, as is the 11.1 K/9.
Preliminary THE BAT projection for Yu Darvish on #Cubs— Derek Carty (@DerekCarty) February 10, 2018
Honestly, I could watch that GIF on loop. It basically never gets old. I watch that GIF and wonder how anyone ever gets a hit off of Darvish. Brooks Baseball helps illustrate the pitch makeup that is behind that wizardry.
Like many pitchers Darvish throws four main pitches, unlike many pitchers, Darvish can throw a lot more than four pitches when it strikes his fancy. As you can see in the next table he primarily relies on a fourseam fastball, slider, sinker and cutter. His velocity on his fourseam sits at about 95 MPH and has stayed there pretty consistently his whole career. His slider is the offspeed pitch he throws most often, and it’s about 12 mph slower than his fourseam.
You’ll notice that there are a lot more pitch variations on that chart than just the four I noted above. In fact, one of the most unique aspects of Darvish as a pitcher is how frequently he uses a pitch outside of his standard selection (almost 8% of his pitches in 2017, which is down from his career averages). You can see this pretty clearly in the below table:
Darvish is clearly a guy who is willing to mix things up and try new strategies as necessary. For example the percentage of time he threw his fourseam has varied pretty substantially over his career. It becomes glaringly obvious when you look at it in graphic form:
It will be interesting to see what type of adaptations Darvish makes to his new home on the North Side of Chicago. I think it’s prescient that the Cubs also acquired Chris Gimenez this off season. Gimenez was Darvish’s preferred catcher when they were both on the Rangers and caught Darvish’s exceptional 2014 campaign. Assuming Gimenez makes the club out of spring training look for him to catch many of Darvish’s starts.
But what about those World Series starts?
Yu Darvish had a disastrous World Series. There really isn’t any getting around it, and presuming the Cubs make another run at a championship in 2018 he’s going to have to come face to face with what was a pretty epic meltdown in the 2017 Fall Classic. It is worth noting that prior to the World Series, Darvish was having a pretty great postseason:
Darvish allowed two runs in 11 1/3 innings in his first two starts of the postseason while allowing opponents to hit .195 against him. In the two World Series starts, he allowed nine runs in 3 1/3 innings while surrendering a .474 batting average against.
It was widely speculated that Darvish was tipping his pitches in the World Series. Tom Verducci confirmed that at the winter meetings:
Now it can be told: Yu Darvish was tipping his pitches in losing his two World Series starts against Houston.
According to a Houston player, the Astros often knew what Darvish was about to throw by the way he brought the ball into his glove in the set position. (Darvish pitches exclusively out of the stretch.) The player said it worked like this: Darvish holds the ball at his side when he gets the sign from the catcher. Whether he re-grips or not as he brings the ball into his glove was the tip-off whether he was going to throw a slider/cutter or a fastball.
“We knew the first time we faced him [in Game 3],” the player said. “The next time [in Game 7] it was mostly the same, but then it was more about just having a great game plan going in. We knew he was going to try to go back to his slider to find it. We had a great approach.”
That is a fixable problem that I imagine Jim Hickey and Darvish will be working on in Mesa. Almost as important as the tipping of pitches, however, was the way Darvish handled having two of the worst starts of his career on baseball’s largest stage.
“This pain is going to stay in me for a while,” Darvish, who is from Japan, said afterward as he spoke through an interpreter.
His World Series numbers speak to that anguish. His won-lost record was 0-2. His earned run average was an absurd 21.60. And the five runs he quickly allowed in Game 7, four of which were earned, took all the momentum away from the Dodgers after they had won Game 6.
Darvish, 31, knew all of this and opted to speak to reporters after Game 7 in the main interview room, even though he was not required to by league rules. Normally in the postseason, the losing pitchers speak at their lockers and the only member of the losing team to mount the podium is the manager.
It says a lot about Darvish’s character that he took to the podium at one of the worst moments of his professional career. What he said was also revealing about the newest Cub:
“I had bad days,” he said, “and that means somebody else had a great day. I try to think of it that way, and sometimes it works. Maybe this time it didn’t work because I let my teammates down...”
...“I would like to come back in the World Series,” he said. “And I want to pitch better.”
I was impressed with the way Darvish faced up to a colossally disappointing World Series. It’s well known that the Cubs’ front office cares a lot about character and I would guess they were similarly impressed.
With any luck, the Cubs can offer Darvish and his dazzling array of pitches a shot at redemption this fall.