Although he is known for his wide arsenal of pitches, Yu Darvish has long been lauded for his especially effective slider. Paired with elite fastball velocity, that hard, breaking slider made hitters look sufficiently foolish that Darvish became the preeminent strikeout starter of his generation.
Just last year, Darvish had the 7th most valuable slider in baseball, and it’s also the 7th most valuable slider in baseball since he entered the league in 2012, despite missing all of 2015 and half of 2016 after Tommy John surgery.
This year? If Darvish had enough pitches to qualify, the -2.7 value on his slider would make it the least valuable slider in baseball.
Something has been very wrong with Darvish’s killer slider, off of which batters are currently slugging an unthinkable .654 and whiffing at the lowest rate of his career.
Mike Petriello noted some of Darvish’s ineffectiveness so far this year, specifically pointing to an inability to get hitters to chase out of the zone (on his slider, and also on his fastball). That has, in turn, led to an increased walk rate, a decreased strikeout rate, and poor results overall.
Anecdotally, from watching the starts, it feels like the damage that has been done to Darvish’s slider (and also the lack of him doing some damage of his own) is primarily because of a lack of command. Moreover, I’m not even sure command of the slider is the big problem so much as command of the fastball. Darvish’s slider has been one of the most dominating pitches over the years because it looks so much like fastball out of the hand that you’re gearing up for 94 mph on the outer half … and then the pitch just disappears on you low and away at 83 mph. When those two pitches are commanded and properly tunneled, the batter is forced to guess. When Darvish is not throwing the fastball with any kind of location, however, batters need pay it so much less respect, and they can instead just guard against the slider, which he has been throwing a ton.
Speaking of which, not only has Darvish been throwing the slider a ton, he’s been throwing it really hard. Maybe it’s just a matter of pitch classifications or the weather or the way he manipulates his pitches intentionally sometimes, but, for whatever reason, Darvish’s “slider” is registering consistently as an 85 mph pitch this year after long being an 83 mph pitch. Something weird there.
And continuing with that thread of weirdness in the data, it’s only fair to point out that Darvish’s slider is moving far less horizontally this year than in years past, and is also dropping far less:
(Obligatory, and addressed below: it’s been only four starts this year, several in far less than ideal conditions. Be advised.)
If you were just looking at these numbers, you’d think Darvish wasn’t so much throwing a hard, breaking slider as a slow, crappy cutter. His cutter, by the way, is also up a couple miles per hour, and is featuring less lateral movement.
When a guy is struggling with command as much as Darvish has, it’s not surprising to learn that he’s also battling the feel for his pitches, as Theo Epstein mentioned this week. Perhaps that’s related to the lack of movement on his slider, and the oddly increased velocity. Something just isn’t quite right with the way Darvish has thrown his slider this first month of the year.
That’s certainly the kind of thing that could “click” at any moment, but it would be irresponsible not to point out that Darvish also really struggled with the movement on his slider in the World Series (slick balls? maybe, but just pointing it out). He also pitched extra deep into the year in his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
At this early stage of the season, I’m reluctant to even say that a pitcher “is doing thing x” or “is now thing y,” because we’re not really talking about a huge collection of pitches. We’re talking about four games. Just four games. And in Darvish’s case, he had a hand cramp in one, pitched in cold and terrible conditions in another, and pitched in cold and thin air conditions in another. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that his one good start came in the game where there wasn’t some weird, extraneous thing going on (in Milwaukee (though the weird velo/movement stuff was still present there)), or maybe we’re chasing our tail trying to find signal in tiny early-season sample sizes.
Whatever the case, I noticed the combination of increased velocity, decreased movement, and horrible results on the slider. It was alarming, at least insofar as you can be alarmed through four starts. Guys work through issues all the time. I’m not saying there’s anything permanent here. It’s just been really, well, alarming so far.