Yu Darvish’s free agency was dominated by talk of his World Series nightmares. Baseball relies on large sample sizes, and that dictates that two dire starts – even on the biggest stage of all – should be treated with no more concern than a poor two-innings in April.
The Fall Classic mishaps are a distraction from the real Darvish issue. He is not the same pitcher who finished second in the American League Cy Young voting back in 2013. The Chicago Cubs still committed $126 million to Darvish, taking him all through his age 36 season.
The loss of Jake Arrieta this offseason forced the Cubs’ hand somewhat. After the talk of a dynasty after their 2016 win, the 2017 season was a disappointment, despite making it to the League Championship series against the Dodgers. A significant addition this winter was inevitable, and arguably necessary.
Despite acquiring Tyler Chatwood as a free agent, and trading for Jose Quintana midway through last season, the Cubs were on the lookout for a starter. John Lackey – who threw 170 innings in 2017 – followed Arrieta out the door and the club were not confident enough in Mike Montgomery or Eddie Butler to hand them the fifth starter role.
Darvish is coming off the worst year of his career. He still racked up 186 innings, but his FIP and ERA were career-highs, while his strikeout per nine innings dipped to 10.1. His home run per nine was up to a career-worst 1.3, too, but that’s unsurprising given the power surge across the majors last year.
The positive news for the Cubs is that Darvish was still good.
|MLB Rank (qualified pitchers)
Darvish did, however, rank 39th in all of MLB on HR/9. But, even in his brilliant 2013, he was 64th in that category. Giving up hard contact has been a career-long issue. In that season he was striking out 11.9 batters per nine, which was 1.8 (!) ahead of second-place for the season, Max Scherzer.
The trajectory of his career is where the concern lies. Despite strikeouts increasing around the league in the last two seasons, Darvish saw a significant dip in his own numbers last year. Even with his unrivalled arsenal of pitches, the right-hander was not fooling batters quite like he was. Perhaps that has some link to the pitch-tipping we heard about so frequently during the World Series.
The Cubs’ options for a starter were limited this offseason. Darvish still represents better value than the comparatively untested Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb (who also both carried compensation offers), but his 2017 is laced with warnings. It might have just been a down year, it could be decline. We will likely be able to tell if it’s the latter within a few weeks of the 2018 season.
Should Darvish plateau, the Cubs have a reliable, sub-4 ERA starter on a decent contract. If this is the beginning of a steeper slide, that $126 million could soon seem like a disastrous decision.