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What the Cubs can do for Yu Darvish

The current Chicago regime has a track record of getting the best out of starting pitchers. What can be done to optimize their newest acquisition?

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Quintana was not his usual self in 2017. Midway through the season, he was having his worst stretch since becoming a starter in 2012. He had a career high 4.49 ERA, career high 9 percent walk rate, and a career high 12. 8 percent home run to fly ball ratio. The White Sox wanted to trade him to fast-track their rebuild, and this was not helping. Then, he took a short trip to the North Side, became a Cub, and became great one more. His ERA the rest of the way was 3.74, and his 3.24 FIP was even more encouraging. His walk rate fell to 6.1 percent. His HR/FB rate popped up a percentage point, but his fly ball rate fell 7.5 points to 32.5 percent, so he was at least giving up fewer homers. Maybe it was all luck, a little regression, but going to the Cubs seem to have fixed whatever was ailing Quintana.

But this isn’t about Quintana, not really. The Cubs just spent $126 million on Yu Darvish. He is a very good pitcher, though how much better than Quintana is an interesting conversation, albeit one for another day. The Cubs signed him to help them win. He wants to win too, that’s why he joined the Cubs. They helped Quintana turn a bad season around. He’s not the first pitcher this regime has peeled some great innings off, either. What can the Cubs do for Darvish?

Before we examine that, of course we have to see what they did for Quintana. For most of his career the lefty had been a predominantly two-pitch pitcher, relying on a strong fastball with good command and a wicked curve. Over the last three years he’s thrown the fourth highest percentage of curves among starters at 28 percent. Prior to this year he had only one season with sub-40 percent four-seam usage, 2015 when he used it 39 percent of the time. Quintana decidedly leaned upon his strengths. Perhaps it’s something White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper preaches - Chris Sale long lived off his slider/fastball combo, and Carlos Rodon does that now. Or maybe it’s just something Quintana has worked on because it’s smart to make the other guy have to beat your best stuff. When he joined the Cubs he was struggling while following this approach. From his first start there on though, he changed his approach considerably:

Jose Quintana pitch usage pre-and post trade

Split Four-Seam% Curve% Sinker% Change
Split Four-Seam% Curve% Sinker% Change
Pre-Trade 39.2 29.4 23.1 8.3
Post-Trade 30.7 25.3 33.5 10.9

Backing off his curve is a little surprising considering how important it’s been to his success so far. More surprising is that Quintana went from throwing a sinker as something to compliment his other offerings, to featuring it as his most prominent pitch. Between that and adding more changeups to his mix, this must have had something to do with that massive drop in fly balls (a seven point drop to 30.7 percent) and also posting a 47.2 percent ground ball rate. That figure prorated to a whole season would make that his highest grounder rate ever.

This isn’t the only case of the Cubs taking a pitcher and just changing what they throw. Jason Hammel found a pair of resurgences after coming to Chicago in 2014 and dominating, getting traded to the A’s and struggling, then coming back again after the season and having two of his best years. Long a fastball-first guy, the Cubs had him feature his slider more and more:

Even in that 2014 season where his slider use took that first big jump, most of that was during his time in Chicago, then fell off when a different team in the Athletics and a different coaching staff was whispering in his ear:

His time with the Cubs saw Hammel lean more and more away from his fastball, and it resulted in a couple of great years once he returned to Chicago the next season. He earned 3.9 fWAR in 337 innings and struck out 22.5 percent of batters (18.5 percent career K rate) and walking only 6.6 percent (7.5 percent career). Not quite a return to glory days, but certainly a nice late career resurgence.

Then there’s Jake Arrieta. He is a sterling example of the Cubs fixing a lost pitcher. Arrieta went from a pretty subpar pitcher in Baltimore - combined 5.46 ERA, 4.72 FIP over three years and a half years with the O’s - to unhittable in the span of a year and half. You’ll note a decided shift in pitch use between 2013 and ‘14:

He’s gone a bit crazy with the sinkers the last two years, and there could be something to that and his struggles with control and a falling K rate. But he came to the Cubs, they identified something in his repertoire that needed more attention, and it resulted in one of the more ridiculously out of nowhere pitching seasons in history.

This Cubs regime knows something about pitching, that is plain. One main theme of these three men’s adjustments seems to be a movement away from the four-seam fastball, and adding more to the repertoire. The first aspect makes sense - as hitters sell out for power and become more and more a focus, the four-seamer will be hunted for. It’s the easiest pitch to square up. Sliders, sinkers, and of course changeups are that move on more planes than the four-seamer traditionally does. We’ve seen a movement towards more breaking balls the last few years - four-seam fastball use among starters is down 2.1 points from 2015, to 54.6 percent, and curves have picked that up, thrown 12.6 percent of the time in 2017. Slider use is up two points as well to 12.5 percent. The Cubs are heralded as a team on the forefront of this movement. They’re showing it in how they school veteran pitchers.

But how does this affect Darvish? Unlike Hammel or Arrieta or John Lackey, he doesn’t need tweaking to find his former glory. He had an ugly World Series, but despite the ERA being a full run higher in the second half at 4.50, his strikeout rate was up almost four points to 29.7 percent, his walk rate fell 15 points to 6 percent, and his FIP and xFIP both dropped, as well. We’ll get to it more in a bit, but he also mixes his pitches as well as any starter in the game. His arsenal is insanely big.

It could be instructive to look at the Cubs’ last big market pitching move, Jon Lester. The Cubs gave Lester $155 million over six years after the 2014 season, basically running up the flag that contention had arrived. If we use the same tool a the others, we note that Lester didn’t really have much change as far as pitch mix:

Lester has thrown four different pitches at least 10 percent of the time, with a slight dusting of changeup that’s increased a bit as the years have worn on. Aside from a dip in that and an increase in sinker use to 10.53 percent, his highest in four years, he was predominantly the same pitcher. Darvish has quite a broader repertoire than Lester. Brooks Baseball suggests he’s thrown as many as eight distinct pitches:

He’s phased some out, throwing the “slow curve” and splitter a combined 60 times the last two years. It’s almost like he’s just tinkering and searching for things that work.

It’s hard to decide which is Darvish’s best year. His rookie year saw him earn a career high 4.6 fWAR, but the next season he struck out more (32.9 percent) but then in 2016 he had his lowest K-BB% rate at 24.3 percent and had his lowest FIP. It’s probably one of these though:

Yu Darvish’s best(?) years

2012 191.2 3.9 3.29 4.6 27.1 10.9 46.2
2013 209.2 2.83 3.28 4.5 32.9 9.5 41.0
2016 100.1 3.41 3.09 2.7 31.7 7.5 40.0

None of these include his best season by FIP, his 2014 campaign that was cut short when his elbow gave out. But based on the previous line chart, there’s really not a lot similar from one year to the next in terms of pitch selection. The sinker made a huge showing his second season as he took more the Lester mold of still leading with the fastball but keeping hitters off balance with four pitches showing up about 10 percent of the time. He did that again in 2016. It was 9.29 for the curve and 9.57 percent for the cutter, but close enough to ten that it’s acceptable. In short, he threw the kitchen sink at hitters, and it worked.

So what, if anything, is the recipe the Cubs might show Darvish? How can they help him maximize himself as they have Arrieta, Hammel, Lackey, and Kyle Hendricks? Sadly, it’s a question with no firm answer, one that will only show when the season begins. He’s probably the most talented pitcher they’ve had since the Mark Prior/Kerry Wood days though. They could, and likely will, just stay out of his way. They did that with Lester when he showed up, though there might be some helpful suggestions this Spring after his worst season in six years. Whether it’s a bigger dose of the cutter, a focus on the slider or fastball (he’s thrown harder the last two years than he ever has, averaging 94.7 and 94.9 mph) or something we never expected like a return of the splitter, the Cubs have the track record to help make Yu Darvish the best possible version of himself. And despite a poor outing in late October, that would look pretty good.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball here at Beyond the Box Score as well as at Let’s Go Tribe, analyzing the Cleveland Indians. He has a podcast that’ll probably pick up in the summer, Mostly Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.