The Rule of Six: Yu Darvish Re-Ups in San Diego

Yu Darvish
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Be honest: you didn’t think A.J. Preller was done with headline-making this offseason, did you? The Padres have built a team through outrageous swings — trades that no one else in baseball would attempt and free-agent signings that make opposing teams whine with envy. After signing Xander Bogaerts earlier this offseason, though, it seemed like even Preller might be out of moves. There was no one left to sign, no one left to trade for.

The joke’s on us, though, because the Padres found a new way to make news: they signed Yu Darvish to a six-year extension worth $108 million, as’s AJ Cassavell reported. The deal replaces the final year of his existing contract, which would have ended after this year. Instead of hitting free agency, Darvish will remain a Padre, presumably for life at this point.

Darvish has long been one of my favorite pitchers thanks in large part to his dizzying array of pitches. He threw six different ones at least 5% of the time last year and even dabbled with two more. Six pitches, six years: I know an article setup when I see one. If you’ll indulge me in some gratuitous gif-posting, I’ll walk you through six ways to think about this contract.

Year One: Slider, San Diego’s Rotation

Most pitchers throw their fastball as a primary pitch. It’s a math thing, more or less: fastballs are the first option in a ton of counts, so they end up as the most common offering overall even if a secondary pitch does the heavy lifting of getting outs. Not so with Darvish. He leads with his slider, throwing it 45% of the time (I’m using Pitch Info classification in this article, for the record). It’s hard to imagine someone throwing six different pitches and also throwing one of them half the time. It’s even harder to imagine that one featured pitch being anything other than a fastball. But that’s Darvish for you — hard to wrap your head around.

He can get away with using his slider so much because he commands it exceptionally well, throwing it in the strike zone nearly 60% of the time. That’s the third-highest rate in baseball for any slider or cutter (classification systems differ on what exactly he throws). On the whole, the league hits the zone only 46% of the time when they go to sliders or cutters. By flooding the zone with a hard-to-hit pitch, Darvish has made a career out of making batters look foolish.

Last year, Darvish was the best pitcher in San Diego. His 3.10 ERA was one of the best marks of his career despite a declining strikeout rate, which he made up for by walking a miniscule 4.8% of opposing batters. He turned in his third season out of the last four with at least 30 starts, and the only exception was the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, where he didn’t miss a rotation turn. That kind of stability is new for Darvish, and it’s been tremendously useful for the Padres, who are short on rotation depth despite a scintillating top end.

Joe Musgrove is under contract through the 2027 season, but until the Padres signed Darvish, he was the only established starter under contract after this year. Blake Snell will be a free agent, and Seth Lugo and Nick Martinez are relievers trying to make the transition (back) to the rotation. This Padres team is built to win in the next two years — the length of time Juan Soto is under team control — or perhaps the next four or so depending on the rest of the roster. Manny Machado and Bogaerts are at the tail end of their prime, but they’ll provide star-level production for years to come, pending Machado’s opt out after this year. By extending Darvish, the Padres have given themselves more runway to compete without venturing outside the franchise for more star pitching.

Year Two: Four-Seamer, Contract Guarantee

Darvish doesn’t feature his slider because he has a bad fastball; he features his slider because it’s one of the best pitches in baseball. His fastball is no slouch, though it’s more plus than standout. He sits 94–96 mph with it and can still top out above 98 when he needs it, but it’s less a bully-ball pitch than a necessary complement to the rest of his offerings.

It hardly seems fair that Darvish, who built his reputation on the sheer dazzling array of options he brings to the table, should also have a good fastball. But he does, and that helps explain why his career strikeout rate is a staggering 29.3%. Give an otherwise ordinary pitcher Darvish’s fastball, and they’d be above average. Give it to someone whose slider is one of the best pitches of all time, and the results speak for themselves.

Given that resume and Darvish’s recent run of health, $18 million per year sounds like a huge bargain for San Diego. That’s what Taijuan Walker just got, and while he is a perfectly nice pitcher, I mean, come on. Darvish is one of the best pitchers of the last generation, and he put up almost as much WAR in 2022 alone as Walker has in the past five seasons. What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that the contract is paying Darvish far into the future. He’ll be 42 in the last year of this deal. Exactly one player over the age of 35 signed a free-agent contract of three or more years this offseason: José Abreu, at three exactly. In 2022, only Max Scherzer cleared that two-year bar. In 2020 and ’21, no one did. The length of Darvish’s deal means that the average annual value is less relevant than the total guarantee; $108 million would seem quite reasonable over four years, and he’s going to be around for two years after that.

Year Three: Sinker, Competitive Balance Tax

Darvish’s sinker is probably the least exciting of his pitches, but he uses it to mix up his arsenal and keep his four-seamer less predictable. It’s not enough to know that he is throwing a fastball; if you’re sitting on it, which is a smart way to attack a pitcher with so many plus secondaries, you might get a fastball and still swing in the wrong place.

Like his sinker, Darvish’s deal is deceptive. The key thing it does, from San Diego’s standpoint, is spread out the money owed to him from a competitive balance tax perspective. The Padres have paid the tax for two straight years, and they’ll easily clear that bar again in 2023. That means that they owe 50% on the first $20 million over the $233 million cap, 62% on the next $20 million, and then 95% thereafter. We project them for a payroll of roughly $287 million, which means they owe 95 cents in tax for every marginal dollar they spend.

Darvish’s contract extension replaces his 2023 salary of $19 million, which carried a CBT hit of $21.5 million thanks to the average annual value of that previous deal. The Padres are saving $3.5 million in tax number with this deal, which will save them $3.325 million in actual tax payments. That’s a meaningful amount of money — hardly franchise-altering stuff, but also not a rounding error.

In 2024, the Padres will get a similar boost from having Darvish on their cap for only $18 million. Given the shape of their roster, they’ll almost certainly exceed the CBT threshold that year too, and if you think it would cost $25 million to secure Darvish on a more normal contract, that’s another $6.65 million in tax savings. We’re talking about $10 million dollars, roughly a Drew Pomeranz worth, purely due to contract structuring.

Year Four: Cutter, Projections

Darvish’s cutter might be a slider. Or maybe his slider is a cutter. Whatever you want to call it, it’s one of his most effective pitches. It’s a classification nightmare and also a hitting nightmare. Like his slider, he throws it in the strike zone quite frequently, but if you’re looking for the slider, you’ll miss this pitch by a mile; the cutter falls 13 inches less than his slider on its flight home and has less horizontal bite. It’s another case of disrupting timing; even if a batter correctly works out that a gyro-based breaking pitch is coming, they might get the movement of the pitch wrong.

One thing San Diego hopes is wrong: ZiPS projections. ZiPS thinks Darvish is pitching on borrowed time, with not a single ERA+ above 100 in the next six years, and rapidly declining innings totals to boot:

ZiPS Projection – Yu Darvish
2023 11 9 3.83 27 27 167.0 141 71 24 38 168 99 2.2
2024 9 9 4.12 24 24 144.3 129 66 23 35 138 92 1.4
2025 7 8 4.45 21 21 125.3 119 62 22 33 115 85 0.7
2026 5 6 4.87 16 16 88.7 90 48 17 27 78 78 0.0
2027 3 6 5.40 12 12 70.0 75 42 15 24 59 70 -0.4
2028 2 5 5.94 9 9 50.0 58 33 12 19 40 64 -0.7

Yeesh. If ZiPS is right, maybe Taijuan Walker was too optimistic of a comparison. Despite a solid 2022, Darvish’s peripherals are worrisome; his swinging-strike rate has declined for two straight years, and last season represented the lowest strikeout rate of his career. He also posted his lowest groundball rate; more balls in play and more balls in the air is a scary combination.

ZiPS is more pessimistic than Steamer here, and I’m not sold on its conclusion. A 2.2 WAR full season would be the worst of Darvish’s career. “Pitchers don’t age, they break” is an overused statement, but it’s overused because it generally tracks with reality. Still, ZiPS is good at what it does, and it really doesn’t like this deal.

Year Five: Curveball, Bottom Line

Goodness do I enjoy a Yu Darvish curveball. I love the audacity of it; how can someone who throws 98 also lob in a mid-70s lollipop with such sharp downward break? It generates more swinging strikes than his slider, largely because he uses it in counts where hitters need to protect the plate. He almost never throws it when behind in the count, preferring instead to save it to press his advantage. He even drops in the occasional ultra-slow curve; he’s thrown a pitch below 70 mph in each of the last four seasons, bottoming out at 64 in 2022.

I think this extension is the kind of deal that the Padres feel compelled to make. They’ve pushed their chips in, so to speak, creating a powerhouse that can compete for World Series titles right now with little regard for the future. It’s probably unrealistic to expect them to keep Soto in town, though I’m sure they’ll try their hardest. Machado and Bogaerts are great now but both in their 30s. The pitching staff doesn’t have many reinforcements coming, and Snell seems likely to depart after this year along with Josh Hader.

That’s not the worst of it. We rate their farm system as one of the worst in the majors, thanks to the hauls they’ve sent out in recent years to bring stars back. A key reason their current roster works is that Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham, and Austin Nola will make a combined $9.75 million in 2023. And their arb payouts will increase, which will make filling other roster holes tougher.

As my colleague Dan Szymborski pointed out, there’s some Louis XIV-style nihilism going on here. “Apres moi, le deluge,” the Sun King famously said, and Preller is building his team in similar fashion. The Padres are awesome now, and they’ve made the playoffs in two out of the past three years to break a long drought. Maybe their farm system will churn out new talent to replace what they lose in the coming years, but they might never be better than they are in the next two years.

Given that backdrop, you can hardly blame them for steering into the skid. Who cares about the back end of Darvish’s deal if the team will be in a down period then anyway? The 2026 season is a long way away, and 2028 further still. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, to steal yet another phrase from history. Now is the time to be bold.

Even if you take a rosier view of Darvish than ZiPS, this deal feels a touch rich. Let’s leave 2023 out of it; I don’t think anyone was going to offer him $89 million from 2024 onwards. The contract only makes sense if you’re willing to accept a bad deal in pursuit of super-charging the team now.

I suppose that’s what the Padres are up to. There wasn’t any obvious way to add another good pitcher for 2024 without a long-term commitment, so they made the lowest-AAV commitment they could to return someone good. It’s going to sting in the latter part of the deal, but when you’ve painted yourself into a corner, you do what you need to do to push forward. Maybe the path the Padres are on won’t work, but if you’re on that path, I don’t know how else you find a top-of-rotation starter for next year.

Year Six: Splitter, History

I saved the best for last. Darvish’s splitter is jaw-dropping, the kind of pitch that batters either take or swing over. He knows it, and they know it, which creates a delightful guessing game. Can he land the pitch for a strike? Unlikely. Can they hit it if they swing? Also unlikely. Both sides know the stakes, which gives every two-strike count a gripping plot hook. And no, if you’re curious, Freddie Freeman didn’t reach first base safely up above, though it was a bang-bang play.

In recent years, Darvish has thrown his splitter more than ever. It doesn’t appear to have hit a point of diminishing returns just yet. He’s drawing bad swings as frequently as ever and recorded a strikeout on a quarter of the two-strike splitters he threw last year. He might be able to beat hitters with anything, but his split-finger is the nastiest, most whiff-inducing weapon in his arsenal.

Darvish probably won’t make the Hall of Fame, but he’d be a shoo-in for the Hall of Very Good. He joined the Rangers in 2012 after starting a decorated career in Japan, and he’s been the 11th-best pitcher by fWAR since then, ninth-best by RA9-WAR. He’s done that despite two-plus wasted years; he made only 39 starts from 2014 to ’16 thanks to Tommy John surgery and missed most of ’18 thanks to a stress reaction in his elbow.

When he’s been available, he’s consistently been electric. He throws whatever pitch he feels like, in any count imaginable. He learns pitches from teammates and integrates them seamlessly; he briefly threw Craig Kimbrel’s knuckle curve when they were both Cubs, for example. He’s everything, everywhere, all at once, and he looks like he’s having fun while doing it.

For me, Darvish is inextricably linked with the rise of internet video. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t hop online and watch an endless stream of the best individual pitches in baseball. I know Randy Johnson was great — I watched him pitch in quite a few games — but I can’t conjure his individual pitches to mind the way I can with Darvish, because it simply wasn’t easy to watch the game in that fashion back then. Even Darvish’s delivery seems made for video: that pause at the top of his windup gives you a moment to collect yourself before you watch the main event.

His career isn’t done yet. ZiPS is down on his future, but I’m sure ZiPS was down on Justin Verlander’s future at his nadir in Detroit, and we all know how that worked out. Darvish is going to have years to write his final act, and by re-upping with San Diego, he’s guaranteed that he’ll be in high-pressure situations for the next few years.

For my part, I hope Darvish finishes strong. He’s made me like baseball more, which is a high compliment. That doesn’t change the calculus of the deal, and it doesn’t change San Diego’s uncertain future, but it’s worth remembering in any case. He’ll provide yet another reason to keep your eyes on the Padres in the next few years, as if they needed any more.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Joe Joemember
1 month ago

If the Dodgers didn’t exist, would the Padres have been as aggressive as they have? It seems they’ve traded long term success to burn as bright as they can for a 3-4 year period. For the teams it works, they get showered with praise. For the teams is doesn’t work, they get accused of tanking in 3-4 years when their farm dries up and they have older expensive players.

Last edited 1 month ago by Joe Joe
1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

The Dodgers exist and are the weakest they have been in a decade. Go all in.

1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

I prefer this approach 1000x more than tanking, let me know the next time the Pirates , Royals As, or Orioles have 300M payroll, most tanking never gets to spending part. I’ll be rooting for the Padres

Last edited 1 month ago by Draz
Joe Joemember
1 month ago
Reply to  Draz

That’s just it, if this approach doesn’t work, they will end up getting accused of “tanking” or being “cheap” when they try to keep costs manageable while losing/rebuilding/treading water in the future. I have no issue with teams going for all-in as it usually helps my team. I just hate the negativity given towards teams that went all-in, got praise for it, and then get called cheap/tanking when most likely it ends up coming up short as only 1 team wins a year.

Sure, the extremely low payroll teams are part of the lack of parity problem if one sees that as a problem. I just think teams going all in causes a lot of teams to have bright, but short highs and sustained lows as the teams that go for sustainability hoard drafts picks.

1 month ago
Reply to  Joe Joe

Big disagree…Merrill, Lesko, Snelling, Mazur, Zavala, Lizarraga….Good prospects at high $ Value positions and always more

The Future is cheap for everyone anyway. They’ll be fine