Yu Darvish Reflects How the Dodgers Excel

The stat wars are over, and the bodies are buried. Some teams still run more numbers than others, and not every organization has made the same analytical investment, but by and large, the baseball industry has embraced the analytical revolution. We don’t need to go into this. I don’t want to go into this. Baseball has leaned so hard into the numbers that, if anything, it’s created an accidental problem of homogeneous thought. Intellectual diversity might currently be at a relative low. Did you hear about the new GM? He’s just like every other GM. That’s a stupid joke that doesn’t refer to anyone, but it could also refer to almost everyone. This entire paragraph is old hat by now.

Every baseball team has numbers coming out of its ears. Every baseball team has employees with ideas of how the team could be better. The new separator is buy-in. Let’s say you’ve got a player. Let’s say the team thinks it could help the player improve. Will the player be responsive? Does the player trust the people delivering the message? We’ve entered an era of middlemen, of organizations concentrating on finding or developing better communicators. Everyone has the data. The best teams get the players to listen.

At the end of July, right up against the deadline, the Dodgers traded for Yu Darvish. The Dodgers had ideas. Yu Darvish listened.

This isn’t something that makes the Dodgers exceptional. They don’t have baseball’s only good front office or coaching staff. And the Dodgers and Darvish aren’t the only example of a player changing teams and opening up to potential improvements. You could consider even the same Dodgers with Tony Cingrani, another midseason pick-up. The Dodgers wanted Cingrani to change his locations and pitch usage. Cingrani was willing, and now he’s on the roster for the World Series. All players want to get as good as they can. Players and teams generally want the same things.

Cingrani, though — when he was picked up, he was a fringe reliever. That’s how it is for a lot of these guys. Many of the usual cases involve players who’re fighting to stay in the majors. Darvish was never on the major-league bubble. Yu Darvish is one of the higher-profile pitchers in the sport, and at the end of these playoffs, he’ll enter free agency. Darvish has little to prove, and he would’ve been right to be stubborn. Yet when Darvish arrived with the Dodgers, the Dodgers had ideas, and Darvish was happy to cooperate.

Andy McCullough wrote an article on August 4. I’ll include for you an excerpt:

At the team hotel in Manhattan, Darvish met with general manager Farhan Zaidi, who advised him on how to attack that night’s hitters. Zaidi opened a laptop and revealed how Darvish could optimize his arsenal, altering the locations and pitch sequences he utilized during five seasons with Texas.

Here’s part of a recent follow-up, from Bill Plunkett:

The Dodgers have encouraged Darvish to change a number of things since he joined them from Texas – his arm slot, the rhythm of his delivery and his pitch mix.

“Yeah – except his beautiful face. Is that what Yu said?” Kershaw joked, referring to Darvish’s answer at a news conference during the NL Division Series.

Here’s something from Plunkett toward the end of August:

Before Yu Darvish joined the Dodgers, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt did his homework, studying video of the right-hander from throughout his career with the Texas Rangers.
[…]
Honeycutt noticed Darvish would sometimes tilt his back shoulder down farther during the first half of his delivery than he had early in his career. The result was a higher arm slot when Darvish released the ball.

You’d think that, when a team trades for someone like Darvish, the idea is simple. Plug Darvish in, and let him light up the room. You wouldn’t ordinarily trade for someone already so good, and then ask that player to change. But the Dodgers wanted Darvish to change, and they talked to him about it almost immediately. They wanted him to change up his timing. They wanted him to change his pitch frequencies and patterns. More significantly, they wanted him to make a change to his mechanics. A pitcher is his mechanics, more than anything else, yet Honeycutt and the Dodgers wanted a tweak. We’re not talking about an overhaul here, yet the result has still been striking.

Here’s Darvish as a Ranger, and Darvish as a recent Dodger. In the recent screenshot, Darvish’s shoulders are more level, which you can track by keeping an eye on his glove hand, relative to the location of the plate.

The idea was that the Dodgers wanted to bring Darvish’s arm slot back down. Here are two shots, immediately after release.

I’m not sure if those visuals are convincing. Thankfully, Brooks Baseball can help. In the plot below, Darvish’s average vertical release points over time, broken down by month.

You should be able to spot the changes. Darvish, at first, had a certain release point. Then he underwent Tommy John surgery, and, when he came back, his release point had been raised. That’s what the Dodgers wanted to get rid of. They wanted Darvish to throw more like his old self, and the data suggests this transition has gone pretty well. After joining the Dodgers, Darvish dropped his average release point more than two inches. In the playoffs, he’s dropped his average release point by another two inches. The actual change, perhaps, has been subtle, but the effect has been fairly dramatic, as these things go. Release points tend not to change much during the year. Certainly not for No. 1 starters. The Darvish case is an atypical one, as he’s put his trust in his brand-new and short-term employer.

It’s not even clear how much everything is helping. Because, again, Darvish was already great. But, over his last five starts, including two in the playoffs, he’s allowed just four runs, with two walks and 35 strikeouts. It could all be a blip, a good pitcher on a hot streak, but this would be only reinforcing the trust. Darvish wouldn’t have known much about the Dodgers at the time of the deadline trade, but, immediately, they got to working together. The Dodgers had ideas to convey, and those ideas were effectively communicated and received.

It should go without saying that Darvish is but a single player, meaning this is basically anecdotal. Maybe it hardly means anything. Maybe Darvish is just unusually open to new information, and he would’ve been looking to change anywhere. Maybe he would’ve made his own mechanical changes, unprompted. We can’t know how these few months would’ve gone otherwise. And once more, the Dodgers aren’t some wonderful anomaly. The Astros have gotten different players to buy in to all kinds of things. No team has been more experimental. And that story has gone around saying that Justin Verlander got better after making use of the Astros’ high-speed cameras. Some teams are good at communicating, and some teams have fallen behind.

But the Dodgers deserve credit for so many things. They are, firstly, incredibly talented and incredibly deep. Lots of plain ol’ good ballplayers. They seem to be good about developing young players. Dave Roberts has kept the clubhouse cohesive, where it’s gone off the rails in the past. And the Dodgers are able to communicate clearly. Players trust them to help, and messages are delivered without being overwhelming. There’s no better example than Yu Darvish. Darvish was already a No. 1 pitcher, joining a new team for two or three months, yet trust was established even before his first start, and it hasn’t in any way waned. Darvish has placed his faith in the organization, which makes it that much easier for the organization to place its faith in Yu Darvish.





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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Jeff,

Thanks for including the sequence of screenshots to highlight your observation. It is much easier for the less trained eye to see the changes in pitching or hitting mechanics than from video at normal speed.