Earlier in the year, I wrote on this site about the ace of the Chicago Cubs, Kyle Hendricks. I’m not backing down from that statement, I mean, the guy has been a top 10 pitcher in baseball this year. However, he hasn’t been the best pitcher in the National League, let alone on his own team. That honor belongs to Yu Darvish who has spent the better part of two seasons proving all his naysayers wrong.
It’s odd to think of Darvish as having many naysayers. Besides the fact that the guy has succeeded at every level of his baseball career there the fact, he’s one of the nicest and most thoughtful players in the greater baseball world. He’s a funny guy, his Twitter feed is full of instances of him using humor and a sarcastic bite to be both relatable and an all-around cool guy. Usually, when a player cultivates a reputation as a good clubhouse guy and has a great online presence with fans they will get some leeway when they struggle. That leeway was missing when Darvish had a nightmare 2018 season that turned much of the city of Chicago against him.
The writing was on the wall for Darvish as soon as 2018 began. He was talking about needing to perform to justify the big contract the Cubs had signed him to. Instead of taking this as endearing most Cubs fans began to spin a narrative that Darvish wasn’t living up to said contract. This was before he had ever thrown a regular-season pitch in a Cubs uniform. When Darvish came out and struggled mightily and then lost the majority of the season to injury things got really bad for him.
There was a very public grilling from Álex Rodríguez on Sunday Night Baseball that helped to set ablaze the flames of discontent that the former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters ace was feeling from the fans in Chicago. When he attempted to come back and was then shut down again with arm issues Cubs fans took every opportunity they could to knock their supposedly overpriced superstar pitcher. For his part, Darvish took all of this in stride and stayed on-brand with nonstop messaging about letting the team down and doing whatever work he needed to do to come back and be the pitcher the Cubs deserved.
Improving from a season where he threw only 40.0 innings and accrued a FIP of 4.86 and 0.3 fWAR shouldn’t have been hard for the perennial dominant starter. Yet, it seemed very hard because of how much the fans and Chicago media remained all over his case. Despite his openness and willingness to talk with the media and address every concern that the fans had over his performance the harsh words just kept coming. One would think that a 2019 that saw him pitch 178.2 innings of 4.18 FIP ball for a 2.6 fWAR season would ease off some of his critics?
That didn’t happen as most fans decided that Darvish was not like most pitchers and should have come back from a significant arm injury as the best pitcher in the league right out of the gate. Darvish refused to be rattled, and when the season ended he decided not to opt for free agency stating that he owed the Cubs franchise for believing in him during his worst stretch as a professional. 2019 was a season where everyone with clear eyes could see that Darvish was coming back into his dominant form. He managed to remain as gracious as could be the whole time, and yet coming into 2020 the fans and media still remained in doubt of Darvish’s worthiness as a pitcher.
43.0 innings into this season Darvish has a FIP of 2.02 and has already compiled 1.8 fWAR, both of which are tops in the NL. Darvish and Hendricks have taken a mediocre Cubs team and made them seem much better than they actually are. This entire article could be spent talking about the changes Darvish has made; how he decided on a whim to start throwing a knuckle-curve and now has the best knuckle-curve in baseball, or how he worked to walk the fewest batters in his career. Various stats could be trotted out and we could dive quite deep into the why and how of Darvish’s great 2020 season.
We could do all those things, but that’s not why I wanted to write about Yu Darvish. He’s great, he’s always been great, and no one should have doubted he would find his greatness again. Darvish is an even better person than he is a ballplayer, there’s little doubt that most would have crumbled under the heavy scrutiny and derision he has faced the past few seasons. Through it all Darvish remained the same magnanimous individual who became one of the most well-liked players in baseball. A lot of Cubs fans missed the forest for the trees and failed to support Darvish when he needed them most. Darvish himself will never complain about the treatment he received from Cubs fans. He doesn’t have to, we all witnessed it in real-time. Now, Cubs fans are getting to experience the already great man performing just like the great pitcher he always was. A healthy Yu Darvish is great for baseball, and he’s better than Cubs fans deserve.