Yu Darvish May Never Walk Another Batter

After dropping their first two games to a decidedly mediocre Phillies team without even putting up a fight in either, the Cubs needed a stop. So where better to turn than their newly minted staff ace? Though more than a few people are probably reluctant to admit it, Yu Darvish is the best starter on the Cubs’ staff right now and it’s not particularly close.

It’s become clear over the last month or so that Darvish is pitching like the guy the Cubs thought they were getting last season. That process has taken a little longer than anyone, especially Darvish, would have liked, but both the immediate and lingering effects of last year’s elbow injury appear to be a distant memory.

Darvish tried for months to pitch through an undiagnosed stress reaction that led many to believe it was all his head. In addition to admittedly altering his mechanics in an attempt to alleviate the pain, the righty almost certainly battled a great deal of self-doubt. He may have even fallen in line with some fans when it came to wondering why he couldn’t just go out and pitch.

As anyone who’s come back from lingering injuries can tell you, getting a clean bill of health isn’t a cure-all for confidence issues. For Darvish, that meant struggling with command early in the season as he appeared to be pressing to meet expectations. Once he began to settle in and take his time on the mound, however, things really started to fall into place.

Through his first eight starts, Darvish walked 33 batters in 36.2 innings (8.10 BB/9) en route to a 5.40 ERA. In the 17 starts since, he’s walked 18 batters over 102.1 innings (1.58 BB/9) while striking out 124 (10.91 K/9) and posting a 3.78 ERA. He has walked only two batters in his last eight starts, with no walks in his last four.

The last free pass Darvish issued was to the Giants’ Mike Yastrzemski in the 4th inning of a game on July 23, which means he’s not walked any of the last 102 batters he’s faced. That is just some incredible stuff, folks.

All that stands between Darvish and overall elite-level performance is his continued proclivity for giving up dingers. In an interesting twist, he’s allowed exactly as many homers as walks (18) since May 15 and had given up four times as many homers (8) as walks in his last eight starts. But hey, that means he’s limiting the damage.

He’s also working much more efficiently and getting deeper into games on a regular basis than he had been early in the season. Darvish completed six innings only once in his first nine starts, much of which was a function of Joe Maddon giving him an early hook to preserve his confidence. By going at least six innings in 13 of his last 16 starts, it could be concluded that the early coddling paid off.

Well, except for the fact that Darvish still hasn’t gone past seven innings, including Thursday night in Philly. He was lifted in the top of the 8th at only 92 pitches in favor of pinch hitter Tony Kemp. It seemed odd that Darvish was being removed, particularly when it meant burning a light-hitting second baseman with two outs in a 5-0 game and a subpar defensive alignment on the middle infield, but Maddon explained afterwards that Darvish had been slipping.

Far be it for me to question such decisions given my ridiculous concepts of bullpens and bullpen management, but Darvish was still hitting 95 on the gun and needed just nine pitches to dispatch the Phillies in the 7th. The top of the order was coming after after a pinch-hitter, so that may have weighed more heavily than the combined 0-for-5 with three strikeouts between Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper.

With allowance for the possibility that Darvish really was gassed and felt that he wasn’t able to press on, Maddon’s explanation feels like some revisionist CYA rationale. Granted, even a notoriously shoddy bullpen should have been able to hold a 5-0 lead for two innings. But the way Maddon described it makes it sound as though pitching coach Tommy Hottovy was essentially convincing Darvish that he was done.

The “Darvish agreed” part seems to indicate that it was the decision of Maddon and/or Hottovy to pull the starter. If that’s the case, you actually have to put some of it back on Darvish to insist that he’s got some gas left in the tank. After all, we’ve seen him on more than one occasion reach back for his highest velocity when he knows he’s about to be done for the night.

Whether because he thought he had more in him, or maybe just that he didn’t throw enough pitches to show it, that wasn’t the case on Thursday. His fastballs in the 7th inning (94.4 mph) were exactly in line with his average for the game (94.5 mph) and his mechanics appeared sound. With that in mind, you’d think Hottovy would’ve been in Darvish’s ear to fire him up to go out there for at least one more inning.

But, again, no one could have expected everything to fall apart so quickly and thoroughly. So even though the Cubs’ dual bullpen and road woes make it impossible to be completely comfortable until the final out has been recorded, it’s hard to look at these decisions in proper context and still place blame anywhere. Might things have gone better had Darvish remained in the game? Sure, but maybe they’d have gotten worse.

That we’re even discussing this is a function of what ended up being an awful game, the kind not even the folks at Baseball Prospectus can argue looks better when framed. So rather than focus further on the final score, let’s leave off by looking again at what Darvish was able to accomplish. If the Cubs are to win on the road and in the playoffs, they’ll need more pitching performances like the one their ace just put up.

And while he’s probably going to walk another batter at some point, his vastly improved command is a sign that he can indeed anchor the staff for the remainder of this season and beyond.

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