Yu Darvish has gotten off to a rocky start with the Cubs, and for the better part of 23 excruciating minutes on Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, the 31-year-old righty’s struggles appeared to be more of the same. Facing the NL’s worst team, and having failed to last five innings in either of his two previous starts this month, Darvish needed 39 pitches to escape the first inning. Fortunately for the Cubs, he avoided a meltdown and more or less dominated over his final five innings, notching his first win as a Cub and perhaps turning a corner.
Darvish entered the game sporting a 5.56 ERA and 5.12 FIP in his seven previous starts with Chicago, totaling just 33 innings, fewer than five per turn. He had been chased with one out in the fifth inning in his March 31 debut against the Marlins and was pulled from the fifth in three of his next five starts, the exceptions being a pair of six-inning, one-run outings against the Brewers. On May 7, the day before he was to make his first start following a three-homer, six-run outing against the Rockies — a start that drew boos from the Wrigley Field crowd — the Cubs placed him on the disabled list with parainfluenza virus.
The timing of Darvish’s return drew scrutiny from the hot-take-osphere, as manager Joe Maddon could have started him against the Braves at home on May 14, a makeup game for an earlier rainout, but instead opted to give him “one extra day” and start him against the same opponent in Atlanta a day later. Maddon dismissed the notion that the team had a potentially hostile Wrigley Field crowd in mind, but Darvish’s departure after four relatively sharp innings and only 61 pitches added fuel to the fire, at least until the manager revealed that the pitcher departed due to a calf cramp. Nonetheless, the perception of Darvish as mentally soft is in danger of taking root in Chicago, bad news for a pitcher who’s just one-quarter of the way through the first season of a six-year, $126 million deal, even one who owns the kind of career numbers — a 3.50 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 11.0 strikeouts per nine — that testify to his talent and outstanding stuff.
So it felt like a lot was riding on Sunday’s start against the Reds, and it didn’t go well — not to begin, at least. A six-pitch walk to leadoff hitter Alex Blandino was followed by a six-pitch foul out to catcher by Eugenio Suarez and then a single by Joey Votto on the fifth pitch. Seven pitches later, Darvish hit Scooter Gennett in the left foot with a 91 mph cutter, loading the bases. While he tidily ended a four-pitch encounter with Adam Duvall via a strikeout on a high 95 mph fastball, the Reds got on the board when Scott Schebler hit a hot grounder — with an exit velocity of 100 mph, the fastest he allowed all day — to Javier Baez on Darvish’s seventh pitch, a ball that the shortstop could only knock down. Infield single. After a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey, with the bases still loaded, Darvish managed to put the inning to to rest by inducing Tucker Barnhart to foul out to third baseman Ian Happ, limiting the damage to one run.
It was just a week ago that the Mets pulled Jacob deGrom for precautionary reasons after a 45-pitch first, but Maddon let Darvish keep going, and he and the Cubs were rewarded. Darvish threw five efficient innings without allowing a hit. After setting down the side on 11 pitches in the second and third, he needed 15 pitches to escape the fourth after issuing walks to Schebler and pitcher Tyler Mahle — the latter of which prompted a mound visit from Anthony Rizzo — but just 18 to complete the fifth and sixth. He induced Votto, whose first-inning single was the only other hard-hit ball (96.6 mph) he yielded besides Schebler’s grounder, to hit into an inning-ending double play in the fifth, erasing Blandino, whom he’d plunked. With his spot due up to start the seventh, and with the Cubs having backed him with three homers and six runs, Maddon pulled Darvish in favor of pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, ending the right-hander’s afternoon at 94 pitches. He allowed just the one run and walked three while striking out seven.
It was no masterwork, but Darvish did slay the fifth-inning dragon. Prior to Sunday, he had allowed 14 runs in that frame — out of a season total of 23 — while recording just four outs for a 31.50 ERA. He thrived on Sunday by generating a season-high 17 swings and misses, 11 of them on his four-seamer, which according to Brooks Baseball averaged 95.3 mph and topped out at 97.4. In his first seven starts, his four-seamer had produced just a 6.8% whiff rate, down from 11.8% last year; he hadn’t generated more than four whiffs via the heater in any start since last September 2, when he was a Dodger, and hadn’t gotten more than 17 swings and misses in an outing since last July 21, when he got 29 (20 via the four-seamer) against the Rays. After throwing just seven of his 14 first-inning four-seamers for strikes on Sunday, he got 31 out of 43 strikes the rest of the way. What’s more, where his heater had been scalded for a .333 average and .639 slugging percentage when put into play thus far in 2018, on Sunday, Schebler’s infield single was the only one of eight that wasn’t converted into an out.
Darvish has been through a lot since that July 21 outing. In his next one, on July 26 against the Marlins, he was pummeled for nine hits and 10 runs in 3.2 innings. As it turns out, he was tipping his pitches, pausing momentarily before throwing his fastball but going to his glove quickly before throwing a breaking ball. He never got a chance to correct it as a Ranger, as the Dodgers traded for him on July 31, and while he struck out 10 hitters in each of his first two outings for L.A., he endured ups and downs as the team worked with him to tweak his mechanics, simplify his expansive repertoire (most notably ditching his splitter and slow curve), and improve his sequencing. He closed the regular season and began the postseason on a roll, allowing four runs (three earned) in 30.2 innings with a 35:2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, all of which was overshadowed by two nasty, brutish and short World Series starts, in Games Three and Seven, as the Astros spotted him tipping his pitches again, chasing him in the second inning both times.
Despite that ugly ending to his 2017, Darvish didn’t lack for interest during the weird, slow winter. Ultimately, in mid-February, he chose the Cubs over the Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Rangers, Twins, and Yankees (and perhaps others). The Cubs have worked with him to avoid further tipping issues and to eliminate a pause in his delivery that he had introduced in spring training and used in his first two starts. Here’s an example from March 31:
And here he is on Sunday, striking out Duvall:
Between his mechanics and his repertoire, Darvish has always been a difficult pitcher to pin down. Brooks Baseball, which uses manually coded Pitch Info classifications that may differ from Statcast, shows him throwing a four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider, curve, slow curve, splitter, and changeup. They don’t all appear in every start, but even the lesser offerings — such as the slow curve, splitter, and changeup, which together account for about 2-4% of his offerings in a given season — rear their heads every month. And even the eight categories may be an oversimplification, as Darvish offers multiple versions of his slider. The Athletic quoted the Cubs’ run-prevention coordinator (yes, that’s a job title) Tommy Hottovy on the subject:
“The thing with the slider is he’s throwing different versions of it,” Hottovy said. “I know he’s throwing technically ‘sliders.’ But some of them he’s trying to get more depth with and throwing more of downer version of the slider against more of a sweeper that he’ll use occasionally too. He is manipulating them to an extent and making them two different types of sliders.”
The sliders range from anywhere to 79 mph to 87 mph, with the harder pitch having more depth and the softer one staying more on the same plane, like a cutter. And of course, there’s the actual cutter, which is similar to the sweeping, slower slider, but coming in at the low 90s.
Even with that in mind, Darvish varies his pitch usage pretty considerably from month to month. Here’s the pitch-type data since 2016, when he returned from Tommy John surgery, in five-game rolling averages (or about a month’s worth of starts):
That’ll keep you guessing, except when it doesn’t — and, coming into Sunday, Darvish’s outside-the-zone swing rate and swinging-strike rates were the lowest marks of his career, while his contact rate was the highest:
And here, care of Brooks Baseball, is a look at the breakdown of his swinging-strike rate by pitch type, with the lesser-used pitches omitted from the plot:
Until Sunday, Darvish hadn’t generated a single swing and miss on his curve, which he was throwing just 3.4% of the time. The rates for the four-seamer and cutter, which together account for 48.5% of what he’s throwing, were down significantly, while that for his sinker (thrown 20% of the time) had barely ticked upward, leaving only the slider (thrown 24% of the time) as the only pitch where he had gained any ground relative to last year.
Given that he escaped his inauspicious start and found his groove, Darvish and the Cubs obviously have to be pleased with Sunday’s results, particularly given the recovery of his fastball as a true weapon. For any pitcher, even one with his arsenal, that makes life easier — probably all the moreso in this case, after months of tinkering with so many options across three organizations worth of coaches and catchers. We’ll see where he goes from here.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.