It has been a long time in the making, but Yu Darvish is finally settling himself in as the ace the Cubs paid for a year an a half ago. After being shut down in late May of last year, fans have been patiently waiting for him to earn that $126 million contract. After some struggles at the beginning of this year coming off of his injury-plagued season, the narrative that his contract is the worst in baseball made its way around the league. But after his last eight starts, Yu Darvish has been showing his vintage self that made him a Cy Young candidate in past seasons.
Although Darvish got off to a slow start this year, he was never getting hit hard at any time. Over the course of the season, according to FanGraphs, Yu has the second-lowest hard-hit percentage among qualified starting pitchers in baseball at 28.1%, only behind Stephen Strasburg. Yes, that is better than Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. This is a staggering number and difficult to fathom given Yu's struggles at the beginning of the season. However, there is an explanation for this: walks. Watching his starts at the beginning of the year showed that he had absolutely no idea where his pitches were going. Darvish has always had some of the nastiest stuff in baseball, which is evident by that low hard-hit percentage. But it does not matter how nasty your pitches are if you cannot command them. Having said this, over the last eight starts, Yu is finally commanding his fastball and locating his pitches practically anywhere he wants. Below is a list of some advanced stats that prove how much he has ascended into his vintage self recently:
As you can see, not only has Darvish been much better in his last eight starts compared to his season averages, but he’s improved even further in his last four appearances. This shows that he’s settling in and becoming more comfortable. The biggest facet of his game that he’s improved is walking considerably fewer batters. I cannot emphasize enough how significant the difference is between a 2.76 and a 15.0 K/BB ratio. It’s the difference between a painfully average pitcher and an ace, and that ratio is the driving reason behind Yu’s success over the last six weeks. He’s been able to command his fastball, which has allowed him to trust it more. He’s even reached 98 MPH on the gun with his four-seam late in games, which speaks to how healthy his arm is. Being able to locate that fastball sets up his slider and cutter, which are lethal put-out pitches and allow him to rack up strikeouts. His cutter is the best in baseball with a 19.3 pitch value, according to FanGraphs. The next best is Wade Miley of the Astros at 9.2. That is a remarkable gap, which proves just how valuable Yu’s cutter is and how important locating his fastball is so hitters don’t sit on his cutter or slider. Below is a video of how nasty his slider is to opposing batters when they anticipate a fastball coming.
Although Darvish has improved in almost every area, the long ball continues to be somewhat of a problem even with this string of recent success. Having said this, I would much rather have him attack hitters in the zone than pitch around guys and walk batters. Solo home runs aren’t detrimental. What has plagued Darvish all season is walking two batters then giving up a three-run bomb, leading to a big inning.
In addition to Darvish’s stats, he just seems to be much more comfortable out there on the mound in his recent starts. With his mental toughness being questioned feverishly the past two years, this should not go unnoticed. In his last start against the Cardinals, Yu gave up back-to-back hits to start the bottom of the fourth inning. Normally, that is where Darvish would unravel and give up a three-run home run or start walking batters relentlessly, leading to a big inning for the opposition. Getting out of that jam against the Cardinals and only giving up one run would not have been even remotely possible two months ago, and it speaks to his mental toughness and resilience that he now possesses. In addition, Darvish has been showing some fire on the mound as well, which speaks to how confident he is in his ability. There have been multiple instances in which he’s fist pumped in excitement after striking out batters in key situations to end innings. The most notable one came three starts ago against the Cincinnati Reds:
It’s great to see Darvish exude this ‘fire in his eyes’ type of personality as the playoffs inch closer. The bottom line is that Darvish has always had ace-worthy stuff, but he’s finally starting to put all the other facets of his game together, and we are just now seeing how dominant he can be. If he continues ascending into the Cy Young caliber pitcher he can be, the Cubs will have the ace they desperately need, and it could not come at a better time given how tight the NL Central race will be down the stretch of the season.
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