Yu Darvish took the mound at Globe Life Park for his first start of 2019. It was an emotional return. Darvish had come from Japan to make his mark in the United States with the Texas Rangers, and what a start to his career he had. He finished third in Cy Young voting in 2013, following a top-10 finish in 2012, though injuries, lack of command, and even tipping pitches held Darvish back from finding the ceiling with which he teased the baseball world, using that high 90s fastball with a wicked, awe-inspiring slider.
He was then traded at the 2017 deadline as the Los Angeles Dodgers made their push to not only make but win the World Series. The Dodgers ultimately fell short in an epic seven-game series, where Darvish was absolutely horrendous in both starts as tipping was a big issue for him. It was a sour note for Darvish to end that season but also attached him to an ugly reputation that he was not ready for the big moment. Darvish signed with the Chicago Cubs that offseason looking to put those issues to bed. Sadly, they only continued. Darvish pitched poorly to start 2018, only for his campaign to end prematurely in May, succumbing to right elbow and triceps injuries.
We now get back to that first start. True to the norm of the past couple of seasons, Darvish pitched poorly. He pitched 2.2 innings with seven walks. He had done nothing to quell the questions of his character after that start, only adding fuel to the fire. For that mammoth deal, Darvish had continually disappointed those who watched and rooted for him to succeed. Though as he kept pitching, you could see some of that high velocity, that great stuff, and that Darvish was showing us he still had something left in the tank. Now, he’s put up back to back great starts of six innings with high strikeout totals, no earned runs, and, most importantly, only one walk combined in those outings. The changes Darvish made have not only put him back on the map but put the Cubs in favorable positions to win games.
Cuttin’ the Line
It has been well documented that Darvish has severe command issues, where over his career, only twice has he posted a BB/9 under 3. A lot of it has come from a lack of fastball command, where he falls behind hitters routinely, only to then either walk a hitter or give up a home run, found from his career 1.42 HR/9. A popular theory is lack of focus, gaining traction because of his inability to perform in the postseason, but it is actually just an issue of mechanics.
Darvish generally starts from the stretch, a change he made early on in his career. That change is purely based on simplicity, making sure his body repeats the same motions going toward home plate, though there are some downsides, most notably with velocity. Generally, out of the stretch, pitchers lose the extra momentum that is generated when going out of the traditional windup. This sometimes makes a pitcher who loses some velocity force himself to overthrow to gain that extra tick.
When you overthrow, you lose the shape of your mechanics and thus lose any control over where the baseball is going as shown. This resulted in many of his four-seamers either landing in the middle of the plate or yanked into the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box.
When going through his recent success, there was one pitch that was used predominantly, and that was the cutter.
He located the pitch pretty well, for the most part, putting the pitch on the corners and staying away from the middle of the plate.
Even though the pitch has great spin and moves a lot, there is a more important value to the pitch: location.
Notice how the cutter has generally stayed away from the middle of the plate, with precision toward the glove side and down. Even though there is a hot spot for the pitch on that bottom right corner, you can generally get swings on those pitches as at the decision-making point, the hitter thinks the ball is going to be over the plate. With the four-seamer, if the pitch is in that location, then it will be a ball out of the hand because there is no lateral movement.
Seeing Darvish throw both those pitches, I noticed something in his delivery just at the moment of release:
At the moment of release, Darvish’s four-seamer is a wreck. His legs aren’t that low to the ground, implying that he is not getting a full extension when throwing his four-seamer, thus not having balance. Then notice the gap between his legs and the gap between his left arm and left oblique. This speaks to him flying open a little too early, thus leading the pitch with his arm rather than his body, resulting in a poorly located pitch.
The cutter is a completely different story. His legs are low to the ground and close together, his left arm is a lot closer to his side, and the results speak for themselves. The better balance and control over his body probably speaks to getting the spin on the pitch rather than focusing on velocity. He is able to stay through the baseball for longer and direct his momentum toward the plate, therefore being able to put the pitch in desirable locations.
C3: Cutters, Contreras and Caratini
An easy diagnosis for Darvish’s struggles on the season can be attributed to his varying degrees of success from the Cubs’ three catchers—Willson Contreras, Taylor Davis, and Victor Caratini—who have caught Darvish this season.
As we can see here, Darvish has easily been the best when paired with Caratini, posting a good strikeout rate while posting an unbelievably good walk rate at 5%. Though as we dig a little deeper, we find a different meaning to these numbers.
With the demonstrable success that Darvish had while implementing more cutters into his repertoire, I found the first start in which he started throwing his cutter the most—a May 9 start against the Miami Marlins. The results are quite astounding from that point on:
Since Caratini came off the IL on May 16, the starts in which he has caught of Darvish have been in the middle of this cutter-heavy approach. Contreras had the early version of Darvish, where most of his starts came before May 9. Davis had two starts before May 9 but caught the May 9 start and the subsequent start—meaning he was the first catcher behind this new approach. So at face value, it does not give us much information just to look at these overall numbers and try to justify which catcher has been better for Darvish. We need to break this down among starts after he changed his approach, giving us a better idea of how a catcher is influencing his success given that the pitch repertoire would be very similar.
It seems that even though Contreras has called for the most cutters of the three catchers, Darvish easily has the highest ERA when throwing to him. Not only that, Darvish has halved his walk rate with Caratini from when throwing to Contreras while maintaining a very similar strikeout rate.
Like we noted earlier, the comparisons can now be made between catcher ability when the externalities are normalized—the pitcher’s approach and time period. Now, let’s take a look at the location of these cutters since May 9:
Notice how there’s a large percentage of cutters that end up on the corner to Darvish’s glove side. Because it is at the corner, this is where catcher framing becomes so critical—what is known as “stealing strikes.” By framing runs, Contreras is third-worst this season with -8.1, and Caratini is one of the best with 1.5, per Baseball Prospectus. We can visualize this by seeing both of them catching cutters from Darvish.
The key in being able to frame effectively is subtly pushing the ball toward the zone after it is caught. For a cutter, or most breaking pitches for the matter, a catcher can do this by anticipating that the pitch will move slightly more than expected, making it easier to move the glove toward the zone in one motion. The worst thing you can do is stab at the ball, often taking the glove out of the zone when the pitch is caught. Of course, Caratini backs up his good framing runs statistic by the way he catches the cutter above, and Contreras justifies his position as well.
As Darvish has increased his cutter usage, the success has followed. Though in his most recent starts, we’ve seen a change in Darvish: He’s started to abandon the cutter in favor of more four-seamers. In his past two starts, Darvish has thrown the four-seamer predominantly. After everything we’ve looked at so far, it turns out that the cutter might have only been a phase. Though recall what we talked about in the very beginning: command. The importance of Darvish’s cutter was that he was able to locate it a lot better than his four-seamer. Though in two starts, we can see how he’s been locating that four-seamer:
He is doing a much better job these past two starts of keeping his four-seamer out of the middle of the plate and on the corners. This is a massive revelation, particularly for Darvish because he’s really had no ability to locate it whatsoever this season. It’s hard to envision that his four-seamer would be as well-located as it has been without some sort of change, but there has been. I noticed that his vertical release point has changed these past two starts with his four-seamer.
These past two starts are Darvish’s highest release point on a four-seamer this entire season—with arguably his best results on the pitch.
If we look at Darvish’s fastball to strike out Yasiel Puig for the final out in his most recent start, we can see what the arm slot has done for the rest of his body when throwing the four-seamer:
His legs are closer together and lower to the ground now as we talked about earlier when he threw his cutter. He’s slightly lower to the ground compared with when he threw his fastball in prior months, creating a strong base, thus having better balance as he throws the pitch.
By throwing his fastball more, Darvish will be able to start trading some of his cutters for sliders to add swings and misses—essentially what Darvish has done his entire career. However, this time, he will use an improved ability to locate his fastball and then tunnel the slider with it, hopefully, to be more effective than he has in the past.
Darvish has now set himself up for success. If his arm keeps upright and in the same slot that it has been for his past two starts, he’ll be able to have the fastball and slider combination that has made him formidable for years. Though if he hits fatigue and can’t keep his arm up, falling to the side as it has for a majority of this season, then Darvish can go back to that cutter to attack hitters. Hopefully, with seemingly two effective approaches now at his disposal, he can become the stud we all want him to be—possibly even achieving some of that much-desired postseason success.
(Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)