The Yu Darvish Conundrum

Heading into last night’s start, the Rangers were reportedly still undecided on what to do with Yu Darvish at the trade deadline. At 49-51, they weren’t exactly playing like a postseason contender, but the mediocrity of the American League means they’re still in the Wild Card race, which would point towards keeping their ace to try and make a run. But in a market saturated with low-end arms, Darvish would be the rare premium starting pitcher available, and the team could potentially land a significant return for a player they might lose in free agency this winter.

So with a bunch of scouts on hand, the team had to hope Darvish would give them some clarity. Instead, his start only made things more confusing.

Darvish gave up 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings, pushing his season ERA up to 4.01 in the process. Not only did the team lose another game, but Darvish didn’t exactly convince anyone to put together a can’t-pass-this-up offer, so not only did the team lose some ground in the playoff race, they might also have lost leverage in negotiations. No one is going to think Darvish is lousy now after one bad start, but in truth, it’s not just one start.

On July 4th, Boston hung seven runs on him in 4 1/3 innings, as he gave up 11 hits to the 24 batters he faced. His next start against the Angels, he walked four batters against just six strikeouts. In his July 21st start, where he dominated the strike zone with a 12/1 K/BB ratio, he gave up three homers to Tampa Bay. And then he had last night’s clunker.

In July, batters are hitting .288/.331/.540 against him. The .363 wOBA he’s allowed is his second-highest monthly total in his career, behind only July of 2014 (.379 wOBA allowed), which proceeded him being shut down for the rest of that season, and then he was diagnosed with a torn UCL before the 2015 season began. It’s fair to say that a healthy Darvish has never had as bad a month as he’s having right now, at least from a results perspective.

So Darvish’s stock has to be down at least a little bit. We’ve already seen prices for rentals down significantly this year, and the Rangers were already unlikely to land a monster return due to Darvish’s impending free agency. The fact that he’s struggled leading up to the deadline probably makes it even less likely that a team will overpay, especially with the best teams all having comfortable division leads. So while the Rangers were probably hoping to have to make a tough decision between keeping their dominating ace or taking a really good offer stocked with high-ceiling youngsters, they may now be deciding between keeping their struggling ace or taking whatever the best offer is on the table.

There are pros and cons to each side, and I’m guessing it’s not a clear cut decision for anyone in the Texas front office. If they are concerned that his recent slide is indicative of some real issues, then they are almost certainly better off moving him for whatever they can get now. So let’s look at Darvish’s July and see if we can determine whether this is a case where Texas should be moving him while they still can.

First, we should note that while Darvish did deal with a velocity drop this year, it hasn’t been in July.

Darvish’s average fastball velocity dipped down a little bit in June, but lately, it’s bounced back up to 95-96, where he was sitting earlier in the year. This is the hardest he’s ever thrown, in fact, as pre-TJ, Darvish generally sat around 94. From a pure stuff perspective, it doesn’t appear Darvish is struggling because he’s lost something off his fastball.

But his strikeout rate has been down this year, and that was true even before his July struggles.

Besides his first month or two in the big leagues, this is the lowest Darvish’s strikeout rates have ever been. So that’s concerning in and of itself, and then lately, he’s been giving up a bunch of hits and home runs too. Is the inability to miss bats now showing up as harder contact?

Well, not really.

Darvish’s Statcast Data By Month
Month Average Exit Velocity Average Launch Angle
April 87.4 12.0
May 85.7 15.8
June 86.9 8.5
July 82.8 16.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Darvish has given up a .341 BABIP and a 19% HR/FB ratio while allowing his lowest average exit velocity of the season. And it doesn’t appear that this is one of those cases where using an average just obscures the reality that he’s given up a lot of balls on the extremes, as he’s given up six “barreled” balls — MLB’s definition of balls hit at the right EV/LA combinations to do a significant amount of damage — this month after giving up six, five, and seven in the previous three months.

Using MLB’s xwOBA calculation, which would show if Darvish was giving up a lot of quality contact, July doesn’t seem to be anything out of the norm either.

Darvish’s xwOBA by Month
Month xwOBA wOBA
April 0.310 0.263
May 0.322 0.314
June 0.278 0.267
July 0.300 0.370
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While his results have jumped around, the range of his expected outcomes is much tighter, and don’t show any huge recent decline. If anything, the reduction in average in exit velocity makes it look like he’s getting better as the season goes on, though the results don’t match up with that to this point.

So, yes, Darvish remains a conundrum.

In the midst of the worst month of the worst year of his career, his stuff and his expected outcomes look fine. But his strikeout rate is down, and the last time he got hit like this, he was just about to get shut down with an arm problem that eventually required surgery. If you want to take the optimistic scenario that he’s probably fine, this might be an opportunity to buy low, and there’s data to support doing just that. If you want to take the pessimistic view and think this is a guy with too many red flags to support giving up a significant return for a rental, there’s data to support that position as well.

The Rangers and the rest of MLB have four more days to figure out what they think Darvish is going to be the rest of the year. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to say whether they should trade him, or what the offers should even be.¬†While Darvish’s upside is undeniable, there are enough confusing signs here to make him an uncertain buy at best. Not only is he a rental, he’s now something of a high-risk rental, and I don’t know if a team is going to want to meet Texas’ asking price given the uncertainty he’s created this month.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Interesting thoughts, in light of this one (strangely not referenced here):