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What Does Yu Darvish Bring To The Cubs?

February 14, 2018
Saturday, the Cubs landed the biggest pitching prize of the free-agent market when they agreed to a six-year, $126 million deal with Yu Darvish.

The Cubs believe they added both quality and depth and a replacement for one of their top pitchers, Jake Arrieta. Darvish will slot in alongside Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, José Quintana and another new acquisition, Tyler Chatwood, to form one of the top starting rotations in the majors.

Darvish had a 3.86 ERA and a 3.83 FIP in 31 starts in 2017. He pitched well to end the regular season, as well as in the LDS and LCS, before getting crushed twice in the World Series.

Let’s take a closer look at where he stands at this point in his career and how he fits with the Cubs.

Question to keep in mind: Does he still have what made him good?

When Darvish was at his best (circa 2013 and 2014, when he had a 2.92 ERA in 54 starts), it was because he had a wipeout slider, a solid curveball, a challenging cutter and a nasty splitter among a wide-ranging pitch arsenal. He dominated right-handed hitters and held left-handed hitters to below-average success rates.

Now, after Tommy John surgery sidelined him for all of 2015 and part of 2016, he’s stopped throwing the splitter. He threw the slider and cutter a combined 40 percent of the time last season, up from 28 percent the year before. He threw his fastball, cutter and slider a career-high 92 percent of the time last season.


Darvish was still great against right-handed hitters in 2017, holding them to a .194 opponents’ batting average, seventh lowest in the majors (among pitchers with at least 15 starts).

But against a reduced arsenal, left-handed hitters mashed his fastball and fared better than they ever had against him-- a .262/.325/.453 slashline. When Darvish came inside to lefties last season, he got hit pretty hard, as this image shows.

Taking advantage: Teams can run on him

Cubs fans are used to seeing opposing baserunners run on Lester, but now they’ll see it in a different manner with Darvish. The volume of stolen base attempts won’t be as great, but the success rate will likely be high.

Since 2014, Darvish has allowed stolen bases at a 96 percent clip (43-of-45). That’s the highest rate of any pitcher who has allowed at least 40 steals in that span. 

Darvish’s issue is that it took him an average of 1.70 seconds to deliver a pitch to the plate in 2017, three-tenths of a second above the major-league average for a right-handed pitcher.

"He lacks an efficient slide step," said one major-league scout. "He has a well below-average move to first base and has nothing that would make a good baserunner afraid. Even below-average runners can take advantage of the higher leg kick."

Something to watch: He’s going to bounce pitches

Another thing for his catchers to keep in mind is that Darvish has twice ranked among major league leaders in wild pitches, including 2017, when he had 12.

The Cubs primary starting catcher, Willson Contreras, ranked 32nd in pitch-block success among the 66 catchers who had to block at least 250 potential wild pitches over the last two seasons, so he’s average in this regard. He’s used to this sort of challenge, having caught Arrieta, who led the NL in wild pitches each of the last two seasons.

On the plus side: This infield should help him

Though Darvish is not someone who yields a lot of ground balls, his infield defense should help him when he does allow one. The Cubs infield had the highest rate of turning ground balls into outs and tied for the MLB lead in Defensive Runs Saved in 2017. He should be pitching in front of that same group of defenders (Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, with Ben Zobrist available to fill in) in 2018.

Projection: Prognosis positive

Despite some of the issues we pointed out, the Bill James projection system likes Darvish heading into 2018. It tabs him for a 3.42 ERA, 10.2 baserunners per 9 innings and 223 strikeouts in 192 innings. The projection system aligns with the Cubs' belief that Darvish’s track record will win out as he moves forward into this new phase in his career.

Mark Simon is a senior research analyst at Sports Info Solutions. He recently started there after spending nearly 16 years as a researcher at ESPN.

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

I have a hunch that Tyler Chatwood will have a better season than Darvish.
6:40 PM Feb 20th
Steve: I'm with any of those.

Even granting that they'd be hard to define, I say "So what" -- that's not a reason to favor a thing that's pretty off the mark, like "had a second surgery," just because it's concrete and a no-brainer to define.

Use any definition; use various definitions; use no definition at all but just do a set of narratives about all the major league pitchers who ever had Tommy John surgery, and then we use our heads to see what the results have been.

BTW, as you say, we'd expect stuff like that to have been done, and I don't know that it hasn't been, but I've never seen it or heard of it, and I imagine nobody else on here has either, or else they would have said.

(Yes, this is an invitation for anyone to say.) :-)
7:41 PM Feb 17th
No need, Maris. At least with each other, you and I have always managed to disagree without being disagreeable.

Sure, it would be interesting to know how pitchers perform pre- and post-surgery. But 'how they do' is a pretty imprecise standard. I suggested a couple of more specific ones--longevity, return to form--and no doubt that's a basis for research, though there are other factors that would have to be taken into consideration (age, years of service, for example). Thinking about it, it would be surprising if the research hasn't been done already.
10:41 AM Feb 17th
Steve: If I could edit those posts or if I could do them over, I'd do them nicer. :-)
3:27 PM Feb 16th
Great article!
12:14 PM Feb 16th
(We have a lot more to look at than Tommy John himself and stray unaccumulated anecdotal evidence.....)​
9:54 AM Feb 16th
Steve: You're forcing me to be like we are after Bill whiffs on one if our Hey Bills. :-)

What I'm talking about isn't complicated. It's just more direct and more exactly what we really want to know about these things.
In fact it's exactly what we want to know.

Including you. :-)

All I'm saying is, what we really want to know is HOW THEY DO in their careers, after having had surgery. Looking at whether they do or don't need repeat surgery is a very sideways way of trying to get at it, and doesn't answer much -- unless you think that as long as they don't have a second surgery it means they're just fine.

(Do you?)
9:48 AM Feb 16th
Well, maybe it skirts what you want to know...

Anyway, if it's absolute certainty you're looking for, you're surely out of luck. There are too many variables. I suggested two: state of the elbow, quality of the surgeon.

So what actually do you want to know? Longevity post-surgery? Return to pre-surgery form? If the question is the degree of risk in signing a post-TJ pitcher, there is already some--at least anecdotal--reason to think it's a good bet, even before this study: look at Tommy John himself, whose surgery was entirely experimental, utterly without the benefit of subsequent experience, and who did pretty well.
8:33 AM Feb 16th
I don't think "requiring or not requiring a second operation" answers much.

The issue is just how well they did, with or without second operations. Looking at requiring second operations is interesting, but it skirts what we want to know.
11:43 AM Feb 15th
Interesting study, Backstop, thanks for the link. At the risk of drawing conclusions for an individual based on the mass--and with the added caveat that pitchers in the study, unlike Darvish, had three years of activity on either side of the surgery--Darvish would seem to be a decent bet to avoid a second operation: his post-op workload is lower than his pre-op workload--so far.

Another caveat: there are only 28 pitchers in the group that required a second TJ, versus 137 in the control group that did not. So this is a procedure with a very respectable rate of success, suggesting that there may be factors beyond workload in the negative cases.

Thus this note of interest: pitchers with a longer recovery from the first operation were more likely to have a second, implying that those who have the easier rehab heal more reliably and may be at less risk for relapse. Which raises the question: why does one pitcher heal faster than another? Something intrinsic to the elbow? Quality of the surgery?
8:01 AM Feb 15th
This is an interesting study that perhaps offers some insight into how productive a TJ-ed pitcher will be based on his time of recovery and his pre-surgery workload:​
4:52 AM Feb 15th
(sorry, typo again: In that second pgph, that's not supposed to be "how long they tend to age after that," but either how they tend to age, or how long they last; not sure what I meant to type) :-)
4:34 PM Feb 14th
Neither the Cubs nor this article seem to be very concerned about his low average number of innings in recent years, which I would think is a fairly important predictor of numbers of innings in the next few years, nor the related thing of his having had the arm damage and the Tommy John surgery. We've been down the road of discussing TJ-aftermath, on "Hey Bill," (which BTW I didn't recall, but it was pointed out today on Reader Posts) and the cognoscenti consensus seemed to be that there isn't much reason for concern -- but I remained unconvinced. It seems to me that it's quite up for grabs about the quality and endurance of a pitcher's arm after TJ surgery, with there being a pretty large question mark on it.

I'm not aware of any studies or data on it. Pardon if there are and if in fact it got mentioned in that Hey Bill discussion, which I guess was a few months ago -- probably around the middle of last year.
I'd love to see stuff like what's the percentage of pitchers who return at all to their pre-damage level, how long they tend to age after that, and how it relates to specific factors like age, and maybe things like prior K rates and what kinds of pitches they throw.
Or anything at all.

I suspect that the data wouldn't be as favorable as most people seem to assume.
4:32 PM Feb 14th
(Y'all wanna add Mark's name at the top if possible!)
4:22 PM Feb 14th
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