Two weeks ago the Dodgers looked like a mega-team that not even the mighty, defending-World Champion Cubs could compete with. They had gone 43-7 over a 50-game stretch, were 91-36 overall, and the best record of all time seemed well within reach. Then they added the best pitcher on the market, acquiring Yu Darvish from the Rangers in a deal completed minutes before the deadline. Los Angeles looked unstoppable. In the past two weeks, however, things have fallen apart, and the pitcher they had thought would take them to the next level has been at the heart of their struggles.
Yu Darvish has battled injuries since his arrival in the States, but his stuff has always been electric when he finds himself healthy enough to step onto the mound. That electric stuff is what made him a highly sought after free agent when he made the transition from Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball. The raw stuff in terms of velocity hasn’t changed, but the effectiveness of his repertoire has diminished, especially in 2017.
Darvish’s earned run average has jumped from 3.41 to 4.25 this season. An increase of that magnitude in runs allowed certainly jumps off the page. Perhaps some of that increase can be attributed to the changes in the ball that appear to have swept the league this season. His home runs allowed per nine innings has risen from 1.08 to 1.45, which can be almost entirely attributed to his 4.6 percentage point increase in home run to fly ball ratio from 2016 to 2017.
Blaming the ball would be an easy way out for Darvish and his fans. Many have ignored the implications for offensive players, so why not do the same for Darvish and other pitchers who have been hurt by a ball that jumps out of the ballpark? But in the case of Darvish (and presumably every other pitcher) there is more at play.
First and foremost, Darvish simply isn’t striking out as many batters as he has in the past. His 26.9 percent strikeout rate this season is measly compared to his 31.7 percent rate in 2016. The decrease in strikeouts along with a small increase in walks (7.5 percent to 8.2 percent) is a good place to start with what has gone wrong for Darvish. Interestingly enough, swinging and contact rates against his pitches both in and out of the zone haven’t seen a significant change. His swinging strike rate is even within 0.3 percentage points of the one he posted a year ago, showing that it’s not simply the lack of strikeouts either. It must be a combination of a few things.
Maintaining good velocity is one part of being a good pitcher. Using the right pitches in the right situations in the right location can be even more crucial. Darvish has accomplished the former, but he has seen a huge drop-off in the latter. For a good portion of his career, Darvish has used his fourseam fastball nearly half the time while mixing in his other six pitches at relatively even rates.
This season, however, he has moved to throwing fourseamers, cutters, and sliders about three quarters of the time. That alone isn’t a bad thing, but the results from his increase in sliders and cutters have not been good. The slider in particular has gone from an excellent weapon to an overused, poorly located pitch. He’s now throwing that pitch 25.2 percent of the time, and too much of a good thing can quickly turn into a bad thing.
The biggest sign of trouble for the slider is the decrease in whiff/swing percentage from 37.1 to 30.8 in just a season’s time. Hitters are swinging at the pitch less than before (7.35 percentage point decrease) while also whiffing at it less per swing. The pitch is simply failing to miss bats like it has in the past. It’s unfair to place the blame solely on using it more. The location of Darvish’s sliders have also seen a migration into hitter friendly zones.
Darvish still puts his slider away, but his ability to avoid mistakes in the zone has faltered. A few more sliders left in the zone can quickly turn into home runs, doubles, and a ballooning run average. That appears to be the a huge part of the issue for Darvish, whose slider went from a .057 ISO against in 2016 to a .141 ISO against this season.
Slightly worse command, less strikeouts, and a juiced ball have all worked against Darvish this season to push him from legitimate ace to middle of the pack. Those factors have combined to turn his impressive .214/.276/.360 slash line against to a middling .238/.305/.422 slash line against this season.
The Dodgers are in a good position, in that they don’t need Darvish to become an ace once again. They can place all their trust in Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, to lead their staff. What they do need from Darvish, however, is to find a home in the middle where he won’t be hurting a team that currently can’t find a way to win. There’s plenty of time until the games start meaning something for a Dodgers team that will inevitably win their division. In that time, the team needs Darvish to find more of his old self.
Los Angeles doesn’t look as terrifying as they did two or three weeks ago, but the players who produced a 43-7 stretch are the same ones remaining on the team. The big addition of Darvish hasn’t paid dividends yet, but it still can when it means the most. If the Dodgers get a resurgent Darvish in time for the postseason, they will quickly become the heavy favorite once again.