When Yu Darvish came off the disabled list last Tuesday (illness), there was some disappointment with his first start back. Although he allowed just one earned run and struck out five Braves batters, he lasted just 4.0 innings. So there was still a bit of concern (or, at least, anxiousness) over finally getting him going.
Yesterday, however, he delivered arguably his best start of the year, one that, I think, should make Cubs fans feel a lot better … even if it didn’t look that way from the start.
If you recall, Alex Blandino led off the game with a walk, before Eugenio Suarez popped out behind the plate. Following that, Joey Votto singled, Scooter Gennett was hit by a pitch, Adam Duvall struck out, and Scott Schebler singled, before Darvish finally got the last batter, Tucker Barnhart, to pop out to third.
All together, seven batters stepped up to the plate in the first inning, which required a massive 39 pitches from Darvish. Given that we all just wanted to see him last deep into a ballgame (not only for his own performance-related concerns, but also because the Cubs just played a double-header the day before (one of which required extra innings)), this wasn’t the greatest start. It kind felt like Darvish would be fortunate to even match the four innings from his previous outing.
But Darvish straight-up cruised after that, needing no more than 11 pitches in four of the next five innings he pitched:
Inning 1: 39
Inning 2: 11
Inning 3: 11
Inning 4: 15
Inning 5: 10
Innings 6: 8
Fourteen of the last eighteen pitches Darvish threw in the ballgame fell in for strikes (including the dreaded fifth inning!), and his final slash line was a beautiful 6.0 IP, 2H, 1ER, 3BB, 7K.
According to FanGraphs, Darvish’s 68 Game Score from yesterday tied his first start against the Brewers (when he struck out nine batters over 6.0 IP) and came up just short of his second start against those same Brewers, a nice 8-K, no-run, 69-Game Score effort at Wrigley Field at the end of April.
But given how close all three starts were – in terms of his pure stats – the adjustments he made in this one might make it his best start as a Cub.
So, the question of the day is … how’d he do it?
Well, looking backwards through the game, I can tell you that Darvish’s fastball is what bailed him out of repeating that frustrating first inning. To open the game, Darvish was throwing everything in his arsenal at the Reds:
1st Inning Pitch-mix:
Four-seam: 14 (35.9%)
Slider: 13 (33.3%)
Two-seam: 5 (12.8%)
Cutter: 4 (10.3%)
Change-up: 2 (5.1%)
Curveball: 1 (2.6%)
The rest of the game, however, he simplified things … a lot:
2nd-5th Inning Pitch-mix:
Four-seam: 43 (78.2%)
Slider: 5 (9.1%)
Two-seam: 1 (1.8%)
Cutter: 4 (7.3%)
Change-up: 1 (1.8%)
Curveball: 1 (1.8%)
After throwing his four-seamer 35.9% of the time in the first inning of the ballgame, Darvish more than doubled that the rest of the way. And, sure, it was partly out of necessity (if you’re pitch count is up, you gotta start pounding the strike zone, especially if your bullpen is tired), but it was also working very well.
Not only was Darvish averaging 95.2 MPH on his four-seamer yesterday, he maxed out at 97.4 MPH, and induced an impressive 11 whiffs on that pitch alone! His slider (3 whiffs), cutter (2), and curveball (1) each got some swings and misses, too – 17 whiffs in just 6.0 IP is downright awesome – but his fastball was clearly carrying the weight.
But Darvish wasn’t just toeing the rubber and letting it fly. Instead, he was doing something with his four-seam fastball that, typically, he doesn’t: he was targeting a bit higher in the strike zone.
Check out the heat maps for Darvish’s four-seamer from the start of 2017 (his first full year after Tommy John surgery), and from yesterday, specifically. In the past, Darvish lives at the very bottom of the zone as much as he can (FanGraphs):
But yesterday, there was a very clear movement upwards with the four-seamer:
And it worked! 10 of his 17 whiffs on the day came in the upper half of the strike zone, and that’s exactly what you want to see for a guy who can fire it at 95+ MPH with a great spin rate.
Or, if you’re the Reds, exactly what you don’t want to see: “Darvish was throwing some off-speed stuff and this and that,” Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “All of a sudden, he decided to throw some hard stuff in an area up around the chest that was very hard to hit and very hard to lay off of.”
The Cubs’ manager agrees, but adds that his four-seamer is more than just a wipeout pitch, it helps set up everything else, as well. “He had really good stuff,” Joe Maddon said. “After the first inning, he was commanding his fastball. He was dotting them up at 95-96 (mph), and when he can do that, it makes his slider one of the best pitches in baseball.”
That fastball up is something we talked about way back in March, as Darvish’s high-spin, high-velo four-seamer seems perfect for climbing the ladder, even if it’s not something he’s done much before. And the Cubs’ new pitching coach has long been a believer in the efficacy of the high four-seamer (you can read more in our write-up from March – it sure fits now!).
Maddon went onto express his belief that Darvish still lets the mental half of the game throw him out of a rhythm from time to time. But, at the same time, when he starts rolling, he can be among the best in baseball: “I think he has a tendency to overthink things. When he gets the ball back from the catcher, sees sign, sees glove and throws it, man he gets really good, fast.”
Darvish, on the other hand, seems to think his struggles in the first inning and throughout the year are more physical, than mental: “My off-speed and my fastball weren’t there in the first inning,” Darvish said. “I’m still changing my mechanics, so there is still room to wiggle …. It’s definitely a confidence boost, the last two outings, including today. I’m eager to go out there and do what I do every time.”
If Darvish starts to more frequently pound his four-seamer in the upper half of the zone, I think he’ll continue to get plenty of whiffs, while also better setting up his other pitches – which, hey, you can’t just abandon that wide of an arsenal every time out.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.