Earlier this week, Jed Hoyer jumped on 670 The Score to talk about a number of important topics revolving around Cubs Spring Training, but one comment stood out to me above the rest.
When asked about how the Cubs would prefer Yu Darvish’s to use his unusually large arsenal of pitches, Hoyer was cryptic, but admitted that, in general, the Cubs prefer their pitchers to be comfortable using all of their pitches, even if one is, individually, not as strong as the rest.
Basically, Hoyer believes that random, unexpected pitches (in moderation and strategically deployed, of course) can put doubt in a hitters’ mind, and better set up the more elite stuff for later in the count. “Making sure a guy uses his entire arsenal is really important,” Hoyer concluded. Point noted.
Chris Gimenez, Darvish’s former catcher and current front-runner for the Cubs back-up catcher gig, mentioned something similar about Darvish, in particular, from last season: “I heard [the Dodgers] took his breaking ball away from him [Darvish threw just three curveballs in the World Series after throwing the pitch 6 percent of time during the regular season]. I can understand, it’s not like his slider, but it does effectively set up other pitches. I watched him pitch in the World Series, and it wasn’t necessarily him.”
In reality, the Dodgers increased the usage of his curveball during the regular season, but, as Gimenez points out, almost entirely eliminated in the playoffs. But that’s not all the Dodgers asked him to change upon reaching LA. Once he was with the Dodgers, they asked him to change a LOT about how he pitches, including his arm slot, pitch mix, and the rhythm of his delivery.
“At the team hotel in Manhattan,” wrote Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times, “Darvish met with general manager Farhan Zaidi, who advised him on how to attack that night’s hitters. Zaidi opened a laptop and revealed how Darvish could optimize his arsenal, altering the locations and pitch sequences he utilized during five seasons with Texas.” Indeed, there’s an entire FanGraphs article detailing everything they suggested he change, which, according to Darvish himself, was everything but his “beautiful face.”
At first, Darvish was skeptical of the changes, but he put his faith in the Dodgers, did what they suggested (manager Dave Roberts said he followed the plan exactly) and produced pretty darn well in L.A. because of it.
With the Dodgers (9 starts, 49.2 IP), Darvish earned a 3.44 ERA (3.38 FIP), with a stellar 30.2% strikeout rate, 6.4% walk rate, and .234 batting average against. Those are really, really good numbers, all of which were significantly better than what he posted in the first half of the season with the Rangers.
And as we pointed out, the Dodgers continued to tinker with Darvish’s pitch mix and overall strategy throughout the year, culminating in what may have been a mistake to limit the usage of his curveball in the postseason.
Where am I going with this? Well, all of this was used to set up the question … What are the Cubs going to do? Will they let Darvish be himself and pitch however he wants? Or will they, like the Dodgers, change the way he pitches based on what they believe might work best? You might think, given the analytically advanced similarities between the Dodgers and Cubs front office, that they’d feel the same way, but it’s not quite that simple.
“We want him to be him,” said Joe Maddon at Cubs.com. “So we’d prefer to get his input and feedback regarding how he wants to go about it. I’m aware of what happened with the Dodgers. I think you’re going to see maybe more of a complete version than he had been in the past [in terms of] utilizing more of his weaponry.”
Maddon continued, laying it on plenty thick: “We’re not going to dictate to him necessarily how he needs to go about pitching, pitch usage, number of pitches, incorporating the variety he has. Let him alone, let him go pitch and we’ll watch it. We’re not following the plan that he had with the Dodgers.”
Well, then. That sounds pretty different than the Dodgers’ approach, doesn’t it?
When the Cubs’ General Manager, manager, and one of the catchers who’s most familiar with Darvish all believe he’s at his best when he’s mixing and matching his robust arsenal of pitches however he wants, while also using the arm slot and rhythm with which he’s most comfortable, you can more or less bank on him doing exactly that.
It’s a divergence from the plan that led to a lot of success with the Dodgers, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for the Cubs, especially if they still make the data available to Darvish to put him in the best possible position to make decisions for himself. It may well be the case that much of what Darvish learned with the Dodgers has been internalized, and he will want to carry it forward with the Cubs. You’re just less likely to see the Cubs forcing changes upon him.
Moreover, it’s important to point out that the Cubs and Dodgers are/were in completely different places with respect to their time with Darvish.
When the Dodgers acquired Darvish, they basically hired a mercenary to help them push to the World Series. What became of his arm after the 2017 was most likely not going to be their concern. The Cubs, on the other hand, just signed Darvish to a six-year deal guaranteeing him $126 million. They will want to make sure he’s not only as healthy as possible during that stretch, but also that he’s as happy and comfortable as possible.
And on top of all of this, letting pitchers pitch how they want/feel most comfortable is precisely how they wound up unleashing Jake Arrieta’s potential. I’m not saying Darvish has another level that the Cubs are about to unlock (although he might!), but they clearly prefer to let their pitchers do their thing. It’s a matter of organizational preference at that point.
So, while we’re watching Darvish this season, you might expect to see some more curveballs (maybe even some of his eephus-type “super-slow curves” that he all but eliminated last year?), and a delivery/arm-slot that looks closer to his time with the Rangers than the Dodgers (unless he, himself, came to feel comfortable with it).