Destroying the myth of a declining and selfish Yu Darvish
There’s nothing wrong with Yu Darvish.
Normally I try easing into a topic, comparing it with a life event or metaphysical concept that you can relate to baseball in some way. Not this time. With this particular topic, the need for hyperbole and indirect discussion doesn’t exist. This requires cold hard numbers to eradicate an idea.
That idea is that Darvish, the Rangers co-ace, is somehow not the same since he came back from injury. That he cares less about the team, as one Twitter user said in brutish fashion a few weeks back. That his performances, and inability of the team to win his starts, indicates a lack of on-field production combined with an increase in off-field egotism.
When it comes to the off field stuff, there’s not much I can offer. People form their opinions of people based on a million different things. So if you’re dug in like a tick on Darvish being a diva who doesn’t give a feces about the team paying his salary, I can’t change that. That said, I’m willing to admit that I have no clue. I’m not in the locker room every day, nor do I text Darvish on the regular. I have no way of knowing these things, and the sad thing is most of the people who’ve cast these judgments don’t either. Speculating on that is an exercise in futility, but because it doesn’t require those pesky facts people do it every day.
So with the knowledge that trying to personality profile a person you see on television every five days is ridiculous, let’s move to what we can prove.
The general perception baseball wise is that Darvish isn’t performing as well post surgery, and that’s hurting the team. So I went to the numbers, comparing some numbers from 2016 to his career averages. Here’s what that looks like:
Obviously, the 2016 sample size is small. Darvish is under 40 innings for the season, but so far he’s improving upon his track record. He’s striking out more hitters while walking less, stranding more runners on base while generating more ground balls and fewer fly balls. Most people won’t complain about that. If you do, well you’re beyond help.
On the subject of outing length, it’s a tale of two stints. Darvish’s first time back from the DL he made three starts, the lengths of which were:
Not a big deal, since most pitchers returning from Tommy John are limited in their first outings back. Then the shoulder flared up, forcing him back to the DL in June. After a month plus off he returned in Chicago, going on a run of starts lasting the following:
Let’s focus on those last four starts, since that’s when this baseless narrative blossomed. Darvish allowed 10 total runs in those starts, meaning on average he gave up 2.5 runs a game. If you go six innings, allowing two or three runs, that’s a quality start by definition. Mix in the amount of strikeouts Darvish puts together, and it’s all the makings of a good outing.
It’s not the runs Darvish is allowing that’s the problem.
The following is the run support he received per game in that quarter of starts. Note that I’m only counting runs when he was the pitcher of record:
That’s an average of 1.25 runs. It’s also worth noting that in the Oakland game, Darvish had Texas ahead 3-2. Matt Bush entered in the 8th, nuking the lead with four runs allowed to deny Darvish a victory.
There’s no way around it: the offense has abandoned Darvish since he returned from the DL. Asking a pitcher to throw a shutout every game is irrational and impossible. That’s what the current run support is demanding of Darvish.
Some will point to the offense slumping starting in July going forward. In theory, if it was just the slump, each starter would be affected. So I calculated the run support for Cole Hamels, Martin Perez, and A.J. Griffin in this same time frame. Here’s the run support with the same conditions as above:
|Start number||Cole Hamels||Martin Perez||A.J. Griffin|
|Start #1||4 runs(July 17 vs CHC)||0 runs(July 15th versus CHC)||4 runs(July 18th vs LAA)|
|Start #2||3 runs(July 23rd vs KC)||3 runs(July 20th vs LAA)||0 runs(July 24th vs KC)|
|Start #3||3 runs(July 28th vs KC)||5 runs(July 25th vs OAK)||5 runs(July 29th vs KC)|
|Start #4||2 runs(August 3rd vs BAL)||2 runs(July 30th vs KC)||4 runs(August 4th vs BAL)|
|Average runs per game||3 runs/game||2.5 runs/game||3.25 runs/game|
Is this excellent offensive output? No. Is each starter getting more runs than Darvish? Without question.
For this to matter, you’ve got to understand what a larger lead means for a starting pitcher. The larger an advantage, the larger margin for error a pitcher has. It turns that mistake pitch every pitcher throws at least five times a game from a critical error to a harmless mistake. It also changes how a battery will call a game. A close game behooves the pitcher to allow as few runners to reach base as possible. It means more effort to strike players out, which can lead to juicier pitches in the zone for hitters. Nothing in baseball operates in a vacuum, and it’s not worth underrating what a tight lead as opposed to even a 3 or 4 run lead means for pitch selection and execution.
Speaking of strikeouts, that’s something people are holding against Darvish now. Setting aside that he’s always been a strikeout pitcher, there’s this idea that he’s only there to strike out guys.
Again, that’s just not accurate.
Let’s look at two starts, Chicago and Baltimore. In both starts, Darvish struck out nine batters. If Darvish was committed to the strikeouts, he’d be giving hitters a steady diet of sliders in both right? That feels a fair hypothesis. Let’s check it:
Sliders vs. CHC: 26
Sliders vs. BAL: 5
So Darvish struck out 9 batters each start, with both starts featuring drastically different uses of his signature out pitch. Is there some other pitch selection abnormality those two starts share?
Now that you mention it, yes.
Sinkers vs CHC: 10
Sinkers vs. BAL: 27
Not as extreme as the slider differential, but it’s noticeable. This is important, because a complaint about Darvish is his pitch count is driven up by strikeouts; that he should focus more on pitching to contact. We also know that sinkers generate the most ground balls of all pitch types. So it stands to reason that Darvish throwing more would result in an uptick of them right?
Ground balls generated vs CHC: 4
Ground balls generated vs. BAL: 5
This confirms what we know about how unpredictable the result is when a ball is hit. For further proof, let’s compare sinkers thrown to ground balls generated in the Oakland game (where Darvish struck out six in as many innings).
Sinkers vs. OAK: 17
Ground balls generated vs OAK: 6.
So Darvish got one more ground ball against the A’s than he did against Baltimore, throwing ten less of the pitch that generates the most ground balls. For the record, Darvish also threw only four sliders that game.
Combining all this together paints a clear picture. Whenever Darvish takes the mound, he does so knowing that over the last month his offense has put him in a position to fail. That throwing one mistake pitch could bury him and the team on that day. There is no other way to interpret his numbers against the offense’s production when he takes the mound.
Darvish is a strikeout pitcher. He always has been, and he always will be. Those acting like this is some sort of problem have either developed an agenda against this specific pitcher for reasons that I won’t speculate on, or they’re ignorant to the realities presented in this piece. It wouldn’t be the first time a high profile athlete in this market has been ostracized for reasons fair or otherwise. I imagine delving into that concept of witch hunting would take many more words.
So I ask all the fans, media people, interested observers, and anyone else who has taken arms against the Rangers ace to stand down. You’re peddling a narrative that is not true. Continuing to contribute to it after seeing this does nothing but show your lack of knowledge about what makes a high level starting pitcher in modern baseball.
If you continue to do it, the problem is with you. Because as stated at the open of this article, there’s nothing wrong with Yu Darvish.
(Many thanks to Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Brooks Baseball which were all valuable resources in compiling this data.)