Yu Darvish Is No Kind of Dodgers Necessity

Clayton Kershaw got hurt yesterday. I guess it’s possible he might’ve gotten hurt the day before or something, but Clayton Kershaw was removed from a start yesterday. His back is the problem, again, and while the symptoms now seem different from what they were a year ago, the initial word is that Kershaw will miss four to six weeks. Even after he returns, there will now be more questions, more uncertainty. And before Kershaw went down, there were already reports linking the Dodgers to Yu Darvish. It would stand to reason that the Dodgers might now have an even higher degree of interest. That’s seemingly good news for the Rangers.

Stop! Reconsider. I should say right here I don’t want to act like a Darvish trade is a foregone conclusion. The Rangers are coming off a sweep of the Rays, and they’re only 2.5 games back of a wild-card spot. You know who could use a guy like Yu Darvish? A team like the Rangers. They might decide to hold. If things stay as they are, they’ll *probably* decide to hold. This could all be much ado about nothing.

And there’s more. The Dodgers have the best record in baseball. They’ve won 33 of their last 39 games, and over that time span, they’ve been 8.5 games better than the next-best baseball team. Kershaw’s played a role in that, obviously. Losing him makes the Dodgers worse, just as adding Darvish would make the Dodgers better. Yet I just don’t see the same need others do. I don’t, say, view a Darvish trade as being crucial. I’m sure it makes me boring, but I don’t see enough of a benefit. The cost is sure to be high.

Here is the current state of things. Let’s even take as a given that Darvish will get dealt, which isn’t really a given at all. We can all agree to play along. Darvish is an excellent and proven starting pitcher. He’d improve any and every starting rotation. The Dodgers lead their division by 10.5 games. They lead the next-best team in the National League by eight games. Their division odds are 99.8%. Their playoff odds round up to 100%. There’s little for the Dodgers to accomplish in the next 2+ months. Nothing is mathematically locked in, but the Dodgers have a massive advantage in terms of grabbing that No. 1 seed.

Now let’s think about the Dodgers, and Kershaw’s role. He’s the best individual player on the team. That being said, Dodgers position players lead the NL in WAR. This team isn’t being driven by the pitching staff. And, the pitching staff? Here’s every team in baseball, plotted by way of WAR per 200 innings:

Now, just to see how things look, let’s subtract all of Kershaw’s value, and all of his innings:

The Dodgers plummet, from first place to…second. There are two points here. One is that Kershaw is outstandingly good. That much, you’ve known for a while. Two, this is a staff that’s outstandingly deep. That much, you’ve probably also known for a while. Even without Kershaw, the Dodgers look very good, and at present, it looks like Kershaw will be back in time for the playoffs, anyway. We don’t know if he’ll be 100%, but there are still plenty of weeks between now and Game 1.

Kershaw is amazing. Alex Wood has been similarly amazing, pitching in Kershaw’s shadow. Rich Hill has gotten back to being amazing. Kenta Maeda is still pretty good. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy — these are big-league starting pitchers. The top-heavy bullpen, led by Kenley Jansen, has enough depth to cover extra playoff innings. The Dodgers of the last few years have been all about depth, and the entire point of depth is to avoid desperation. And so today, the Dodgers aren’t desperate, even with the best pitcher in the world sidelined for more than a month.

It’s easy to link the Dodgers to Darvish. If you view the Dodgers without Kershaw, Darvish slides in as a replacement ace. If you view the Dodgers with Kershaw, Darvish adds on to make them a juggernaut. Of course, the Dodgers are arguably already a juggernaut. What fuels so much of this is a tendency to imagine trades through the best-case scenarios. In reality, there’s no making a team somehow playoff-proof. The 2011 Phillies had the best rotation in recent baseball history, and they lost in the first round. Even just last year, The Cubs were the best team in a while, and they did ultimately win the championship, but they very nearly lost to a club that had been reduced to basically one starting pitcher. You can picture Darvish as some kind of unhittable ace, and he does make it very tough to make contact, but since the beginning of 2016, the Rangers have gone 19-20 in games Darvish has started. In his one start in last year’s playoffs, he allowed five runs in five innings. There’s certainty with no one. Even Aroldis Chapman, last year, might’ve meant less than Mike Montgomery. It’s a strange and stupid and wonderful sport.

It is — always — about the odds. The N of life is forever equal to 1, but baseball is fundamentally guided by probability, even when things go off the tracks. For some perspective, here are some projected rest-of-season ERA marks:

  • Kershaw: 2.60
  • Wood: 3.39
  • Hill: 3.46
  • Maeda: 3.82
  • Darvish: 3.86
  • McCarthy: 3.96
  • Ryu: 4.20

That’s not entirely fair; that penalizes Darvish for pitching in the AL, in Texas. So here are projected rest-of-season WARs, except put over 200 innings:

  • Kershaw: 6.8
  • Wood: 4.3
  • Darvish: 4.1
  • Hill: 3.8
  • McCarthy: 3.6
  • Maeda: 3.4
  • Ryu: 2.8

You see the argument in there. Really, you see both. For the pro-Darvish-trade camp, you see that Darvish would make the staff better. For the anti-Darvish-trade camp, you see it’s a small margin. Darvish, over the remainder of the regular season, would mean essentially nothing. It would be almost all about the playoffs, after which Darvish would become a free agent. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, he’s going to be a two- or three-month rental. If Kershaw is for some reason still absent in October, Darvish might project as the Dodgers’ second-best starter. Assuming Kershaw’s back, Darvish would be number three, a member of a tightly-clustered group.

In last year’s playoffs, No. 1 starters made 35% of the starts. No. 2 starters were at 26%, No. 3 starters were at 25%, and No. 4 starters were at 13%. The previous year, the distribution went 31% — 29% — 24% — 16%. No. 1 starters averaged almost three starts. No. 4 starters averaged a little over one. Let’s imagine the Dodgers were to add Darvish. He’d make them better, in that he’d knock out some inferior starter, but he’d also reduce Wood’s innings, and/or Hill’s innings. The total gain might be a run or three. A run or three can be huge. They can also be insignificant. When you think about trading for Darvish, you think about a string of postseason shutouts. You think about him pitching like 2001 Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling. 2015 Johnny Cueto had a playoff ERA over 5. I probably don’t need to tell you about David Price. These things shouldn’t be evaluated by what might happen, through one series of events. The Dodgers can only make their decisions based on the sum of the possibilities.

And what they know is that Darvish would make them only slightly better. That would apply to one single month, and a small number of starts. The cost would include one top prospect. Maybe that’s not Alex Verdugo, but it very well could be. Verdugo was just ranked Baseball America’s No. 35 midseason prospect. He could bust, and he has higher bust odds than rental-Darvish would. But he could be highly valuable, and he could be highly valuable for a long time, beginning soon. Of course, at some point, the Dodgers might need to make moves to consolidate value, since they have only so much room, but picking up rentals doesn’t seem like their style. It would be one thing if Darvish were under longer team control. He’s not, and even without him, the Dodgers might be satisfied.

The only major issue is the further uncertainty. The Dodgers already know that Kershaw has a wonky back. But Wood has never been the picture of durability. Neither has Hill, neither has McCarthy, neither has Ryu, and neither has Maeda. If the Dodgers know something behind the scenes, if they have reason to believe their rotation is in worse shape than it appears, then, well, Darvish begins to make more sense. That’s for them to be aware of. I can only speculate, but at least publicly, it seems like the Dodgers are still in good shape. Their rotation could theoretically be improved, but they might just be happy with a new lefty reliever. Remember that, in the modern playoffs, starters throw fewer innings than ever, not more.

All these words, to say: Yu Darvish is good, and will potentially become an expensive rental. The Dodgers could gain from his acquisition, but they might gain less than any other team. Yeah, there could be some amount of value in picking him up just so no one else can, but that’s not that big a deal. Other teams should be more desperate — other teams in more precarious playoff positions. Other teams who need to get better for the next two months. As much as the Dodgers would look better with Darvish on the staff, they could use him less than even the Rangers could. To me, that doesn’t seem like any kind of foundation for a deal.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

I’m not quite sure what it is about it exactly, but I love the poetry of “The N of life is forever equal to 1”.

Joeys Bat Flipmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

Totally agree. I’m definitely going to steal that line and use it all the time.

kenai kings
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

“even when things go off the tracks.”?