The Cubs and Yu Darvish Needed Each Other

“You don’t want to make a living or habit out of trying to solve your problems with high-price pitching free agents because over the long run there’s so much risk involved that you really can hamstring your organization. But we have a lot of players who have reasonable salaries who contribute an awful lot who might put us in a position to consider it going forward and in the future… It’s not our preferred method. We would prefer to make a small deal and find another Jake Arrieta, but you can’t do that every year, either.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein

The Cubs know the pitfalls of free agency.

Yet, as I wrote back in November and as esteemed colleague Craig Edwards also noted more recently, the Cubs needed Yu Darvish.

And on Saturday afternoon, they acquired Darvish, FanGraphs’ No. 1-rated free agent, who remained available on Feb. 10 in the most bizarre of offseason markets. Top-end starting pitchers are typically among the first big-ticket items to go in free agency, and yet FanGraphs’ top-three free-agent starting pitchers remained unemployed entering Saturday.

While it took a while for this marriage to be arranged, this is typically how it plays out in free agency: a large-market club with World Series aspirations addresses a possible weakness with a top-of-the-market signing.

The Cubs were built to do this.

Following several consecutive down years, the organization purposefully used their premium draft picks on position players, knowing that they represent safer assets that tend to follow a more predictable and productive development path. The Cubs would ultimately address their pitching voids by means of the club’s considerable financial resources. It’s not a model that works for so-called mid- or small-market clubs, but it can succeed in Chicago.

And it did succeed. Chicago signed Jon Lester and John Lackey en route to breaking their World Series curse in 2016. But Lackey’s gone now. As is Jake Arrieta.

It’s not that Cubs would have necessarily entered the season with a poor rotation: Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and company were forecast as the 12th-best rotation in baseball entering the offseason (14.6 WAR). With the addition of Darvish, Chicago’s rotation jumps to fourth (16.6 WAR), trailing the Dodgers, Astros and Indians.

Chicago entered the day with a four-win edge over the Cardinals, according to FanGraphs’ forecasts. Darvish projects to add two more wins to that advantage. Cubs now match the Dodgers with an NL-best forecast of 94 wins. With Darvish, the Cubs look more like a super team.

While the Cubs have the resources to sign such arms, they also need to sign such arms. They have also suffered from unusually poor pitcher development. As Sahadev Sharma found in a piece for The Athletic earlier this offseason, the Cubs have produced the least amount of homegrown pitching production among any club in the Epstein era. Consider the chart Sharma produced:

Sharma examined the number of innings recorded for every major-league team by pitchers they’d acquired via the draft since the arrival of the current curse-breaking Cubs regime ahead of the 2012 season. During that timeframe, which includes six drafts, the Cubs have produced a total of 30 homegrown innings. Thirty! The Blue Jays lead the majors with 1,299 such innings. The Cardinals are second in the majors and lead the NL with 872.

The Cubs have voids to fill and they needed to fill them with high-end talent. So, with Darvish, they filled a void. But did they do so at too great a cost? Was it a good deal for the Cubs? For Darvish?

Perhaps it’s best categorized as a necessary deal for both parties.

Former FanGraphs editor Dave Cameron forecast that Darvish would receive a six-year, $168-million deal back in November. The crowd predicted a five-year, $125-million deal. But as Carson wrote in an InstaGraphs post on the signing of Darvish, the crowd is typically conservative on big-item deals. So it’s possible the Cubs have actually benefited from a modest New Year’s discount effect. The maximum guaranteed dollars are $42 million below Cameron’s estimate. (It was reported after this post was initially published that Darvish has an opt-out after the 2019 season, which is a player-friendly feature).

Moreover, with large-market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees seemingly determined to remain under the luxury-tax threshold, Darvish probably did not have the market for which he had hoped. Even after agreeing to pay their new starter up to $25 million per season, the Cubs remain under the tax threshold, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Darvish also lacked the track record of recent free-agent aces — like Zack Greinke or David Price or Max Scherzer — who have exceeded $200 million in terms. Darvish ranks 24th in pitching WAR (14.5) since 2013, whereas Greinke (20.8), Price (22.8), and Scherzer (29.8) have all exceeded 20 WAR.

But what is also interesting about Darvish is there still might be more upside residing in his right arm — if the club can help him extract it.

As documented by Eno Sarris at this site and also by Andy McCullough of the L.A. Times, Darvish made some changes to his pitch type and sequencing after joining the Dodgers, embracing some of their data-based suggestions. He lowered his arm slot and began burying his breaking ball even deeper.

Consider where he located his curve against lefties while with the Rangers:

And with the Dodgers:

The result? Darvish was excellent in the latter part of the season. And while he fell flat in the World Series, let us not forget that the right-hander struck out 61 and walked 13 in 49 innings with the Dodgers in the second half.

He ranked 15th among qualified pitchers with a 19.6-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates (K-BB%) this past season, but he ranked 12th in the second half (23.7 points).

So while the Cubs ideally would like to not be signing a nine-figure free-agent deal, they need a player like Darvish. The Cubs have short-term needs, and it’s possible Darvish might have even more to offer. For both parties, it seems a necessary fit.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Come on, you know that the reason he signed so late was because he wasn’t getting the offers he wanted…and NOT that he didn’t get the offers he wanted because he signed so late. The causality runs in opposite direction as the “New Year’s discount” (or more specifically, a third factor, the labor market more generally, caused both the late signing date and the total dollars).

EDIT: Due to question below, this in reference to this:
“So it’s possible the Cubs have actually benefited from a modest New Year’s discount effect.”
It’s pretty clear that the “discount” is because of market conditions, and not because of the New Year, as the link suggests.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone


6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agreed. Market conditions now are that teams are paying for the 50-75th percentile projected outcome, instead of the 75-100th (sic) percentile.

6 years ago
Reply to  Knoblaublah

That’s not true at all- AAV/WAR has remained steady.

Most recent FA classes have around 120 FAs, who sign for around $5m AAV, for an average of a bit more than 2 years, with an average value per contract around $12- slightly increasing around 5% year-to-year and on 3-year rolling averages.

This trend is still true for the 2018 offseason, despite a slow market and a pull back on years for the select top FAs.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The “New Year’s Discount” has everything to do with the player getting antsy and not being willing to wait it out longer. That still applies here, but obviously the weird market this offseason plays a role as well.

6 years ago
Reply to  burts_beads

There is no data to suggest the psychological “antsy” narrative. Further, there is no reason to think that players would become more “antsy” than clubs- it’s just narrative, and incorrect.

The data suggests that the 80th FA signed usually signs for less AAV/years than the 20th FA signed- that is simply to say, higher end FAs tend to get signed more quickly in the offseason than the lowest end FAs. Therefore the players signing later are often worse, and therefore take less money.

There is nothing special about January 1st – most any date will show this same pattern. FAs signed after March 7th will typically make less than those signed before. FAs signed after February 4th will typically make less than those signed before, etc. Since the top FAs at their positions usually sign in November or December, it is true that FAs signed after those periods generally sign for less. This offseason the signings have simply been delayed by the Boras PR campaign against Clark.

The empiricism on these nonsense narrative-driven talking points is shocking in poor quality.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Agreed, Travis’s articles always push the same counter-factual talking points.

6 years ago
Reply to  ThomServo

When you say counterfactual do you mean…what? Counterfactuals are theoretically driven “control” groups and it is confusing to me to see it used like that here.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Fair, I mean unsubstantiated.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yes.I think a panic signing of unsigned guys will happen (maybe did with frazier) but that is mostly the lower level guys,the upper level guys did not lower their price because it was late, it is late for them because they never got a better offer.

Btw using the minus 0.5/0.7 per year age curve model darvish will be worth around 13 war/120M so he got what he is worth.

Really good Players still get close to their age curve expectation, they just don’t get 50m over that anymore.

For example look at the pujols was worse than expected but still it was underwater from day one.

He was projected for around 6 war or so in 2012 so it would have been

12: 6
20: 0.6

That is worth like 200 m but his contract is 40m more than that. That doesn’t happen anymore, probably because teamsthey understand aging better but also because there are hardly any bidding wars anymore.