What Fixed Yu Darvish?
Darvish’s year has been one long roller coaster. He started out as the hot new international signing. He was the sensation in Spring Training, with every bullpen session and Spring Training start being highly scrutinized and analyzed. By no fault of his own, he has been measured and evaluated against Daisuke Matsuzaka all year, almost never in a positive light.
He started the season generating good results despite a mostly bad process. On May 16th, Darvish was 6-1 after eight starts, and his ERA was 2.60, but he had walked 26 batters in 52 innings. Based on his track record of ridiculously high K/BB ratios in Japan, it seemed inevitable the process would improve, and the results would get even better right along with them.
After the All-Star break, things only got worse for Darvish, as his next five starts consisted of 31.1 innings pitched with 21 walks and a 7.76 ERA. That stretch culminated in two of Darvish’s worst outings of the year, back-to-back starts in which he allowed seven runs and six walks to the Angels, and six runs and four walks to the Red Sox. A season that started with high expectations had only gone downhill from the start. That start in Boston was rock bottom.
Since that day in Beantown, Darvish has made seven starts. In them, he has pitched 50.2 innings, allowed just 12 earned runs and 14 walks, while striking out 60. He has a 2.13 ERA during that stretch, and is holding opponents to a .151 batting average and .445 OPS. Essentially, opposing batters are hitting as well as pitchers off of him over his last seven starts. It has been an incredible turnaround for a MLB rookie during the hot dog days of summer. Darvish has gone from a major question mark to the favorite to be the Rangers Game 1 starter, from a Dice-K type of bust to an Ace.
My Granddad Ellwood used to own a race horse that was a really fast horse, but for several races that horse would slow down near the finish. The horse’s trainer and jockey determined that the problem could be one of two things: a weak ankle, or that the horse would chew on its own tongue during a race and over time would slow down because of the discomfort and bleeding. After that prognosis, before the next race, the trainer stabilized the ankle, and used something to hold the horse’s tongue down during the race. My Granddad’s horse won that race, finishing just as strong as it started.
In many ways, Darvish is like my Granddad’s horse. Not only because he started strong and is finishing just as strong (if not stronger), but also because it’s relatively unknown what was the catalyst in the night-and-day turnaround. My Granddad told me after that race that he was certainly happy that his horse had won, but he did partially regret that the trainer attempted to fix the ankle and the tongue issue at the same time. In a perfect world, the trainer would have only corrected the ankle, and see if that worked. If it didn’t, then he’d try the tongue. Then, if necessary, he’d do both. Isolating the solution would prevent the future hardship of always having to wrap the ankle and tie down the tongue, one of which may have been an unnecessary exercise.
In the case of Darvish, two things happened at the time of his season’s revival. The most obvious change is that the August 6th game in Boston was the last game that Darvish pitched to Mike Napoli. After that game, Napoli played just one more game on August 10th before going on the DL until being activated September 15th. Since his return, Darvish has continued to pitch to Geovany Soto, and it seems will continue to do so.
At the same time, after that Red Sox start, Darvish and Ron Washington got together to have a “father-son” talk. According to Washington, he wanted to check in with Darvish and see where his state of mind was, and help him move forward from the bad rut he had fallen into. After that meeting, Washington had this to say: “He’s finally relaxed and feeling like he can just go out there and be Yu Darvish and not worry about the results. I think we are about to see something special the rest of the way here. I don’t know when it’s going to click in, but it’s going to click in.”
It could be that Darvish is more comfortable working with Soto. It could be that his talk with Washington helped adjust something in his mental approach to the game. One is the ankle, the other is the tongue. I lean towards assigning more of an impact to the talk with Washington. As Yogi Berra said, “90% of the game is half-mental”. The mental aspect of baseball is far more important, in my mind, than which catcher is throwing down the signals. However, like my Granddad, I can do nothing but rue the fact that it is unknown what the solution was.
If my hunch is correct, and working with Soto actually had very little impact to Darvish’s results compared to his newfound comfort level mentally, then I would like to see Napoli returning to catching Darvish again. If the defensive value of Soto and Napoli is approximately equal, then maximizing Napoli’s playing time puts the Rangers in the best possible catching situation. Since returning from the disabled list, Napoli is hitting .389/.500/.944, and is at a .809 OPS for the year. Soto’s OPS is at .645 as a Ranger, up only marginally from .631 as a Cub. With his prior relationship working with Dempster, Soto is already in the rotation to give Napoli a day off of catching once every five days. If it’s not necessary, I’d prefer he isn’t the personal catcher for a second spot in the rotation.
At this point, however, the prevailing colloquium is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The Rangers will likely continue to use Soto with Darvish, just like my Granddad’s horse would continue to race with both an ankle brace and something to hold down the tongue. When you have a horse that’s winning, in the end it’s best to just enjoy the ride.