Yu Darvish came under a lot of criticism with the Chicago Cubs during the 2018 season but he was absolutely dominant this year.
After making just eight starts for the Chicago Cubs last season, Yu Darvish was shut down for the year with a stress reaction in his throwing elbow. Safe to say, it was a massive disappointment given the huge contract he signed prior to the 2018 season. Finally healthy in 2019, Darvish was given a fresh start in a rotation that featured names like Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Cole Hamels, and Jose Quintana.
Lester, despite posting a 3.72 ERA in the first half of the season, finally started to show some regression in the second half. The 35-year-old was a fantastic signing prior to the 2015 season and was an integral piece to bringing a championship to the north side for the first time since 1908. The Cubs just had to hope that they were able to achieve what they set out to do before his regression and they did exactly that.
Hendricks was fairly consistent for the team this year but showed signs of the league adjusting to him at times. Still, he posted a respectable 3.46 ERA in 30 starts. Quintana and Hamels were major disappointments this season and the former posted a 4.68 ERA in 31 starts. He allowed a career-worst 35.4 hard-hit percentage and 88.9-degree average launch angle. Batters were able to square him up better this season, especially his changeup which used to be his bread and butter pitch. But opponents were able to slug 0.538 off this pitch.
Hamels was brought back on a steep $20 million option but the team was really left with no other option. Especially considering that Hamels posted a 2.99 ERA in the second half after being acquired last year. He started the 2019 season off on a good note as he spun a 2.98 ERA in the first half of the season but never seemed to fully recover from the oblique injury he suffered. Hamels posted a 5.79 ERA in 42.0 innings for the Cubs in the second half and now he’ll be looking for a new home this offseason.
Back to Darvish. The 33-year-old got off to a rough start this year, posting a 5.01 ERA in the first half of the season but really turned the corner after the All-Star break. Something clicked for Darvish during the break as he was able to limit opponents to a 0.199 batting average while striking out more batters in fewer innings than the first half. He also spun a 2.76 ERA.
So why was he so successful, you ask?
A closer look at his pitch usage suggests that Darvish experienced a tremendous amount of success with his curveball in the second half. Batters were able to hit 0.667 off this pitch in the month of May but reduced that to 0.125, 0.125, and 0.074 in July, August, and September, respectively (via StatCast).
In general, Darvish was able to get more batters to swing and miss on all of his pitches as the season went on. He experienced the biggest swing and miss rate of his fastball, which produced a 13 percent strikeout rate in the month of May and increased all the way up to 58 percent in the final month of the season. Darvish saw the spin rate of his fastball increase every month of the season starting at 2504 RPM in April and 2611 RPM in September. A lot of credit has to be given to Cubs pitching coach, Tommy Hottovy, who worked with Darvish and utilized the Rapsodo machine to develop him into the pitcher the Cubs had hoped they were getting when they initially inked him to that massive contract.
Darvish was also able to work in a split-finger fastball this season. Albeit it was just eight starts, Darvish utilized his changeup just 4 percent of the time. Opponents were able to hit 0.333 off this pitch so Darvish decreased his usage of the changeup in 2019 and brought back the split-finger fastball, which he had not used since the 2016 season. Just for reference, Darvish was able to produce a 32 percent strikeout rate that year, which fell into the top 5 percent of the league.
Reviewing the usage of his split-finger fastball in 2019 reveals that he limited opponents to bat just 0.111 off this pitch and a 39 percent whiff rate. It’s really a shame that Joe Maddon will not be brought back next season because that likely means another new pitching coach. Although Theo Epstein could bring in the next manager with the understanding that Hottovy will remain on staff, similar to Chris Bosio in 2015 when Maddon was brought in.
The second half of the season for Darvish provided a lot of optimism going into the offseason. An offseason that is expected to see major changes to fix the broken offense and bullpen. We’ll see what develops in the coming weeks but Darvish looks to be back on track.