At the conclusion of the 2017 World Series, which saw the Astros defeat the Dodgers with a 4-3 series win, there was a whole team, fanbase, and possibly even a whole city experiencing all the emotions that come along with a game 7 loss. They were all in a low place, but nobody was shouldering more of that loss than the Dodgers game 7 starter, Yu Darvish. His numbers in that series speak to the accountability he felt as he was 0-2 surrendering 9 runs across a total of 3.1 innings which led to a monstrous 21.60 earned run average (ERA) (NBC Sports Chicago). In game 7, after a momentum swinging, late inning game 6 rally by the Dodgers, Darvish lasted only 1.2 innings, allowing 5 runs. After allowing 2 runs to the Astros in the 1st inning, it was a three-run homer in the 2nd by George Springer that took the air out of Dodger Stadium, and essentially sealed their fate.
“This pain is going to stay in me for a while,” said Darvish, who surprisingly opted to take the podium and speak with reporters after the game, even though it wasn’t required of him per MLB rules. Usually after a postseason loss, the losing club’s manager is the only one from the team to appear, but on that day Darvish did as well. He knew what the narrative was going to be at the conclusion of that game, but he had the courage to still come out and face it head on. In hindsight, that moment should have been more than enough to dismiss the “mentally weak” allegations that were soon to be attached to Darvish.
Darvish was a free agent at the conclusion of that tumultuous 2017 playoff run. Before game 7 he was thought to prefer staying in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, but he faced so much backlash from his performance that he grew concerned about how that might affect his family. In the end, getting away from the fanbase that held so much animosity towards him was the decision he made. He went on to sign a 6 year $126M deal with the Chicago Cubs, which was well below what many were projecting at the time (Chicago Tribune).
The Cubs and the team’s fanbase were initially thrilled to get Darvish, especially on what appeared to be a reasonable contract, but opinions changed quickly as he had a rocky first year. In a season marred by injury and control issues, Darvish pitched a measly 40 total innings with a lofty 4.95 ERA and a career high 11.7% walk rate (Bleacher Nation). Even though he was obviously hurt, a performance like that, following his World Series showing the year prior, left a bad taste in the mouth of many Cubs fans. Considering they expected him to put up front of the rotation numbers, just as Dodgers fan did a year ago, some Cubs fans were beginning turn on him as well. At a time where a lesser man would once again be broken, Darvish proved he could rise to the occasion.
The first half of 2019 went only minimally better than 2018 for Darvish, but after the all-star break, he found something. Over his last 18 starts of 2019, Darvish struck out 151 batters compared to just 12 walks. His performance was unreal. Not to mention, he picked up a new pitch midway through the season when the Cubs acquired closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel, known for his heater and devastatingly deadly knuckle curve, helped Darvish refine the latter and add it to his arsenal as well. Not only did Darvish pick up a new pitch midway through the season, and somehow make it immediately effective at the major league level, he made it one of his go to put out pitches. Oh, and by the way, he also had six other pitches he was able to deploy at any given moment. In the second half of 2019 he was frequently working seven different pitches in a single game. How does a hitter prepare for that? It is absolutely unheard of for most, but this is Yu Darvish. He was the Cubs best player down the stretch run of 2019, and the biggest reason why they were able to stay in the playoff race for as long as they did. Quite the turnaround for the pitcher who not too long ago, was the target of a lewd of criticism ranging all over baseball for well over a year. Criticism that turned out to be baseless, given the historic cheating done by the Houston Astros, but that is a topic for another day.
Going into the 2020 season many questioned if Darvish would be able to sustain the success he had in the second half of 2019, but somehow, he’s gotten even better. His 2.11 FIP through 37 innings pitched is good for second in the majors in WAR amongst pitchers at 1.5, trailing only Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians (FanGraphs). If the season ended today, Darvish would most likely be the favorite to win the NL Cy Young award. He has been that good. ZiPS projects him to finish this season with an 8-2 record, a 2.47 ERA, and a 2.60 FIP, good enough for a WAR of 2.4 (FanGraphs). The perception of him in Chicago has completely turned. These days, he is near the top of the list of most beloved athletes in Chicago for his performance on the field, and infectious personality off it. Back in 2018, during his injury riddled first campaign with the team, much of the animosity towards him wasn’t really about his performance. It was that the Cubs got Darvish at the expense of keeping fan favorite, and former ace, Jake Arrieta. The Cubs were in a spot where they couldn’t pursue both, and Arrieta was coming off a 5 year run with the Cubs that saw him transform himself into a Cy Young award winner that led the Cubs to their first World Series Championship in 108 years. Arrieta will forever be a legend in Chicago and live in Cubs folklore until the end of times, but in 2018, the cubs made the right decision to sign Darvish instead. It is painful to utter those words as it almost feels disrespectful to Arrieta and everything he did for this organization and these fans, but it’s the truth. Arrieta’s career has left much to be desired since leaving Chicago, while Darvish has reached new heights. Darvish just recently turned 34, and usually at that age pitchers are forced to become craftier, rely more heavily on their location at the expense of some power, and even learn to pitch to contact, but not Darvish. It’s astounding what he’s been able to do. His fastball is better than ever (96.3 mph compared to a career average of 94mph), his slider is completely dominant, and he’s walking batters at an extremely low rate due to the confidence he has in himself (4.2 BB% good for 7th in MLB) (Bleacher Nation). He’s no longer working around the zone; he’s just attacking hitters from the first pitch. Darvish recently said, “Most people, when you get old, you (lose) velo or stuff. Me, I feel really good, more than when I was 25, 26. I feel weird.”
Since the second half of 2019 Yu Darvish has simply been unhittable. The only thing more astounding than the rise on his 4-seam fastball, is the rise his career trajectory took from the depths of that 2017 World Series game 7. Not many men would have the mental wherewithal to stay standing after the beating he took from the media, much less come back and become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
After his last start against the streaking White Sox, in which he fanned 10 and recorded his career-high fifth straight victory, Darvish said, “I feel really good, especially today, I have a little power in my body.” With the way Darvish has been pitching, we can’t be sure he didn’t just admit to having superpowers.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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