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Yu Darvish is finally trusting his stuff

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... and the results are historically good

Yu Darvish pitches against the Brewers at Wrigley
Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

So clearly, the Cubs final game in Philadelphia didn’t end the way any Cubs fan wanted it to, but there is one shining ray of light in this game that I don’t want lost in the gloom and doom: Yu Darvish has basically eliminated walks from his game and he looks like the pitcher the Cubs were expecting when they offered him a six-year, $126 million contract.

Last night Darvish threw 92 pitches across seven innings. This was his line:

4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K

It was the walks, or lack there of that really stood out to me. In fact, Darvish hasn’t walked a single batter in four starts. Across those four starts his line looks like this:

24 IP, 19 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 0 BB, 36 K

I really cannot stress how rare this is, so I’m going to let the Cubs tell you:

That’s right, since at least 1908 no Cubs pitcher has had three straight starts with at least 8K and 0BB, let alone four. Darvish is in uncharted territory here.

And honestly, that historical tidbit would be enough for an article, but it gets even wilder. You see, Darvish has only walked two batters since the start of July. That is 8 total starts and here’s his line over that period:

48⅔ IP, 36 H, 15 R, 15 ER, 2 BB, 63 K

Let’s look at some monthly splits here, it’s really a tale of two pitchers:

Yu Darvish 2019 Monthly Splits

Month IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP
Month IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP
Mar/Apr 28.2 10.36 6.91 2.20 5.02 6.71 5.07
May 32.1 11.13 5.29 1.11 5.01 4.22 3.96
June 29.1 9.82 2.45 2.15 4.91 5.07 4.00
July 30.2 10.57 0.59 1.17 2.93 3.16 3.41
August 18.0 13.50 0.00 2.00 2.50 3.45 1.78
Select stats Fangraphs

Interestingly, the decline in walks really started in June and he’s just focused in since then. Devin Fink at Fangraphs took a look at this recently and posited that the focus on not walking batters has led to a home run spike for Darvish:

When a pitcher starts walking fewer batters, especially when the change is drastic, it’s important to consider the process behind the results. Where are the pitches now going? Since June 10, Darvish’s zone rate has increased by five points when compared to his prior starts. His first-strike percentage has increased by nine. That seems about right, but it also creates the opportunity for more danger. Darvish could be throwing more pitches in the heart of the zone. That would certainly be reducing the number of walks he allows, but it also might be resulting in more home runs.

Spoiler alert: that is exactly what is happening:

Darvish BB and HR percentage
Fangraphs

That home run tradeoff could be a bit of a problem, particularly if they occur when there are runners on rather than the solo shots Yu has been giving up, but for now the results are so much improved I think the Cubs would rather he give up a home run than surrender to the pitch selection that led to so many walks.

I wanted to see just how noticeable the difference was between May Yu and August Yu so I took some screenshots of his pitch selection and velocity at Baseball Savant for two random games.

First up: This is Yu Darvish throwing against the Marlins on May 9:

Pitch map
Baseball Savant
Pitch selection and velocity
Baseball Savant

Next up, the same graphics for last night’s start against the Phillies:

Pitch map
Baseball Savant
Pitch velocity and selection
Baseball Savant

Two things jumped out at me right away. The first is how visible Darvish’s willingness to attack the zone and trust his stuff is in the later game. He was facing a much more dangerous line up in the Phillies and the vast majority of his pitches were in or very near the zone. The second thing that stands out is that he’s altered his pitch selection. He’s throwing the two-seam fastball and slider less. They aren’t completely gone, he can still rely on them for deception, but he’s simplified his game to focus on attacking the zone.

One of the worst parts of Thursday night’s loss was that it overshadowed an absolute gem of a pitching performance from Yu Darvish. He’s throwing like the ace the Cubs signed him to be. Here’s hoping that trend continues and the rest of the team can take advantage of the historic run he’s on regarding walks.