Instead of Playing Overzealous Lifeguard, Maddon Should Let Darvish Sink or Swim on His Own

It’d be disingenuous to say that Yu Darvish was shoving Wednesday night, but the righty looked a lot better in his third start than he had in his previous two. He didn’t walk anyone and he was missing bats while getting ahead of hitters regularly, averaging just 15 pitches per inning through five.

Perhaps most encouraging, his breaking stuff was playing well on a frigid evening that saw every position player not named Kyle Schwarber bundled in a balaclava. Darvish, it’s worth noting, wasn’t even wearing a long-sleeved undershirt on the mound.

“It was very, very cold out there,” Joe Maddon said after the loss. “[Darvish] handled it extremely well. From the very first pitch, he had great poise. I thought his confidence was outstanding. First of all, I really was impressed under the circumstances. Second of all, by the fact that he may have found some things tonight regarding his delivery and the way the ball is coming out of his hand.”

Pounding the strike zone did have its consequences, as the Pirates tagged Darvish for a pair of home runs that sliced through a howling wind to put the visitors up 3-0 early. That’s where the score remained into the 6th inning, when Darvish was lifted after consecutive singles to open the frame. You can’t hold the second of those against him, though, since it came via a Francisco Cervelli check-swing blooper.

More than just the nature of the hit itself, Cervelli’s inexplicably good performance against the Cubs over the course of his career is one of those things you just have to accept as part of the game. His solo shot in the 1st inning was the first he’s hit this year and also gave him his lone RBI, but it’s far from the only time he’s done damage against his division opponents.

Over the course of 201 plate appearances against the Cubs (8.26% of his career), Cervelli now has seven of his 36 career home runs (19.45%) and 38 of his 257 RBI (14.4%). If he were to play an entire season against the Cubs, he’d hit 20 home runs and have 104 RBI. His career highs in those categories are 12 and 57, respectively.

But uh, back to the lecture at hand. Even though Darvish’s fastball velocity was down a little bit by the 6th, he was only at 77 pitches and was still hitting 93 mph with his secondaries working. The Pirates had men at the corners with out out after the blooper from Cervelli advanced Starling Marte, so a grounder could have gotten the Cubs out of the inning.

Despite giving up some hard contact in the air — there had been a few loud outs in addition to the two homers — Darvish was generating a 44% groundball rate on the evening and very well could have gotten another from Josh Bell. But Maddon came to swap his starter for Kyle Ryan, the unique lefty with a career 54% grounder rate and a fastball release point unlike any other in the game.

Thing is, that really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you break it down. Not only had Darvish gotten Bell to ground to first in each of his two previous at-bats, the switch-hitter actually has a higher grounder rate as a lefty (50.7%) than he does as a righty (46.8%). And while Ryan gets righties to hit it on the ground nearly 58% of the time, the advantage seems negligible at best.

Sure enough, Bell ended up singling to right to drive in a run before Ryan struck out Melky Cabrera and got Jung Ho Kang to ground out to end the inning. The run was charged to Darvish, much like in his previous start against Atlanta that saw Carl Edwards Jr. and Tyler Chatwood struggle to close out the 5th inning for him. Darvish had only been at 71 pitches in that one.

“He could have continued,” Maddon said of his starter after the Braves loss. “He was not weak. He actually pitched really well. Part of it is I wanted to get him out while he was pitching well. I wanted to make sure he left the game feeling good about himself.”

By twice going out to get Darvish before he’d even reached 80 pitches, ostensibly to protect his psyche, Maddon could be cultivating a sense of learned helplessness. Regardless of what the manager might offer in the way of explanation, the message is clear that he doesn’t trust Darvish to work out of jams. But how can Darvish build that trust if he’s not allowed to remain in the game?

The evidence is scant and largely circumstantial at this point, but the immediate results of Maddon’s decisions to pull Darvish in each of the last two games have been no better than had the starter remained in. So are you really protecting the guy when the runners he put on end up coming around to score anyway? Sure, he could maybe tell himself that he’d have gotten those outs had he been in, but that only serves to undermine his own trust in his teammates.

Even worse, it could erode his relationship with his manager, who he might not believe has his best interest in mind. Now I want to be very explicit here that I am not insinuating that is the case with Darvish. Even though he has said after each of the last two starts that he felt good and could have kept going, he has been clear that he isn’t questioning Maddon’s choices.

“I feel I still could go, for sure,” Darvish said Wednesday night. “But I respect Joe’s decision all the time, so I understand that.”

For all we know, the righty could be talking to his skipper before starts to ask for a quick hook the moment things begin to head south. So the highly debatable decisions to get Darvish early in each of his last two starts could actually be a way to protect him.

If, however, Maddon is getting overzealous and jumping into the water to save someone who’s not drowning, he could end up having a negative impact on Darvish and the team as a whole. What situation is going to boost Darvish’s confidence more: Pulling him to watch the bullpen give up runs that are charged to him anyway, or letting him get out of a jam and at least own the results one way or the other?

Beyond any talk of fragility, there’s the simple matter of a thin staff that must be considered. Weighing the state of one pitcher’s confidence over the health and effectiveness of the entire bullpen seems like a strange strategy. Unless, that is, Maddon has traveled into the future to view all 14,000,605 possible outcomes of the present situation and has discovered that a quick hook of Darvish is the best means by which to reach a desirable endgame.

It’s hard to believe that’s the case, what with Jon Lester’s absence for at least one turn through the rotation already putting additional pressure on the bullpen. Unless Darvish really has gone to Maddon to express fear of failure in spots like those he’s been in recently — and I cannot imagine that being the case — it feels as though the manager is getting a little too cute with his pitching moves.

Not only have those calls to the ‘pen been deleterious to the Cubs’ immediate outcomes, they may have far-reaching impact on both Darvish and the relief corps. Even if we cast aside outcome bias, the statistical basis for the moves is flimsy at best. Then you’ve got the fact that Maddon has opted to replace Darvish with Edwards, who pitched himself off the roster before the home opener, and Ryan, who never really pitched himself on.

It’s not a matter of leaving Darvish out there to wear one, even if that’s what would end up happening. This is about going with the pitcher who gives you the best chance to win, whether it’s one batter or one inning or one game. And if Maddon is serious about having a “sense of today,” he needs to start letting Darvish be that pitcher rather than coddling him into irrelevance.

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