Yu Darvish Has Whirled His Way Back To the Topon August 25, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Yu Darvish Has Whirled His Way Back To the Top

Back before the Chicago Cubs decided to go full-on Ebenezer Scrooge, they aggressively pursued top players in free agency to improve their roster. One of those players was Yu Darvish, an ace for the Rangers and Dodgers after seven years of dominating the Japan Pacific League, a feat he accomplished while still a teenager. Darvish was the best pitcher available after the 2017 season and the Cubs signed him to a six-year, $126 million contract, a sum commensurate with his abilities. And unlike his first deal in the majors, Darvish didn’t have to contend with a posting fee; when the right-hander came to the States, the Nippon Ham Fighters got nearly as much ($51.7 million) as he did ($56 million).

The initial returns were not promising. The Cubs won 95 games in 2018 before being bounced in the Wild Card game by the Colorado Rockies, while triceps and elbow issues limited Darvish to just eight games. Those were mostly ineffective games to boot, as his walk rate jumped to career highs, his ERA and FIP ballooned to near five, and he failed to complete the fifth inning in five of his starts. MRIs revealed no structural damage to his arm, but the team was careful; the triceps is important in the arm deceleration phase of a pitcher’s delivery:

Activity of the triceps muscles, as well as activity of the anconeus and wrist flexor muscles, helped the joint’s ligaments apply a compression force during this phase in order to stabilize the elbow and prevent elbow distraction.

Darvish was already a veteran of one Tommy John surgery and the Cubs were rightly conservative about rushing their ace to full-time duty. The first victory of 2019 was just staying healthy, which he achieved; Darvish only missed a single start down the stretch due to forearm pain. But the control wasn’t there in the early-going and a third of the way through the season, his ERA was at 5.40 with an extremely worrying 38 walks in 55 starts. Indeed, even late as Independence Day, Darvish’s ERA was north of five.

The Cubs collapsed down the stretch, with a nine-game losing streak in mid-September turning them from a Wild Card contender just two games behind the Cardinals into a mathematical casualty. But a funny thing happened on the way to playoff elimination: Darvish found his inner ace. My colleague Devan Fink talked more about it, but Darvish started going after hitters rather than nibbling around the edges of the strike zone, with his cutter returning as a key weapon. From July 1 on, he only walked seven batters over 14 starts, a notable contrast from the early season when he walked at least four batters in six of his first eight appearances. He survived the fifth in every single one of his starts and the Cubs were comfortable enough to let Darvish regularly cross the 100-pitch threshold in September.

Which Darvish has turned up in 2020? So far, it appears to be the pitcher who quietly dominated National League hitters last summer. After mixed results in his first start of the season against the Brewers, he’s yet to allow multiple runs in a start since. His 2.11 FIP in 37 innings is enough to rank second in the majors in WAR at 1.5, behind only Shane Bieber. If the season ended today — a possibility that feels much more plausible in 2020 — Darvish would be the favorite to win the National League Cy Young award. ZiPS now projects him to finish 8-2 with a 2.47 ERA and a 2.60 FIP, enough for 2.4 WAR, maintaining his NL lead in the final category.

So, should our expectations for Darvish be as rosy as they looked when he signed with the Cubs? My fellow FanGraphseteer Ben Clemens already explored his mystical awesomeness, but this is a question for the cold, hard, cruel numbers. So let’s fire up ZiPS.

First, Darvish’s projection upon signing with the Cubs. ZiPS thought Chicago made a solid investment, pricing the deal at six years, $150 million straight-up. Some of that $24 million projected surplus was clawed back by the pitcher’s camp in the form of an opt-out after 2019, a de facto player option ZiPS projected to be worth about $12 million:

No, the projected inning totals weren’t very high, but that’s the bitter reality of projecting a pitcher; a lot can cause a pitcher to throw zero innings in a season and very few things that will lead to a significant increase in his customary innings pitched. But at least according to ZiPS, 18 WAR was a reasonable expectation over a six-year contract at the time of the signing.

Fast-forward to the end of 2018 and the outlook gets much worse. Injuries increase the uncertainty surrounding pitchers, and ZiPS took a big chunk of Darvish’s projected value away for 2019 onward. I’m leaving 2018’s actual stats in the chart so we’re able to quickly compare Darvish’s projected Cubs-career as a whole:

The 2018 season was enough to knock out nearly half of Darvish’s projected value over a six-year period. And things didn’t looking much better at the end of June 2019:

The outlook for his health improved, but the bump in walk rate, typically an inauspicious sign, made things look worse than before the season. I checked various points throughout 2019, and this was the nadir for Darvish’s Cubs projection. Then the revival happened; 2019 ended on a much sunnier note. Season-end projections usually look pretty solid in July — half the year is already baked in, after all — but Darvish still managed to crush his mid-year projections. He finished with 23 more innings than ZiPS projected, adding 47 strikeouts and subtracting 21 walks. That finish changed the projections notably again and, in a welcome development, it changed them for the better:

Thirteen projected wins was still well off his pre-Chicago projection, but it represented a taking-back of roughly half the value stolen by injuries and walks in Darvish’s first season-and-a-half with the Cubs. And suffice it to say, pitching like an NL Cy Young contender in 2020 isn’t doing anything to hurt his outlook:

ZiPS now projects Darvish to finish his six-year contract with the Cubs with 13.9 WAR, and that increase is before considering teams will play a minimum of 102 fewer games in 2020 than originally expected; in a full season, ZiPS would have tacked on another 3.1 WAR to Darvish’s projection, giving him a 17-WAR projection with the Cubs, nearly identical to the 18 originally forecast. And without three years of uncertainty between the start of the contract and the start of the 2021 season, ZiPS now projects him to be even better over the last three years of his deal than originally expected.

In other words, Yu Darvish really is back. He’s wiped out the memories of his rocky start in Chicago and is now the ace the team hoped he would be. And he’s a big reason Chicago has hoisted the W flag so often in 2020 and is currently comfortably in first place in the NL Central.

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