What Yu Darvish Can Realistically Still Be for the Cubs, and the Problem of Overthinking It

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What Yu Darvish Can Realistically Still Be for the Cubs, and the Problem of Overthinking It

Analysis and Commentary, Chicago Cubs News

This year, like last year, I found myself falling into a routine every five days or so: get hyped for a Yu Darvish start, knowing what he’s capable of … then be disappointed by the results of the start … then think about why it happened this time … then think about what it means for next time. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve trailed off on that front the last few starts because, well, you can ride that wave only so long before you’re just flat burned out. The results are, at this point, either going to be there or they aren’t. So far, they really haven’t been, and it is particularly troubling to see how quickly his control goes sideways when something unfortunate happens behind him, or the hitter he’s facing is at the bottom of the order, and so on and so on.

The last time he took the mound, I went off a bit in the middle of his start – not out of anger or even necessarily exasperation. But instead out of a collapsing sense of reluctant acceptance:

Mike Montgomery wound up piggybacking with Darvish with great results, and heck, that very well may be what we see again today in Cincinnati. Maybe it’ll work out that way for a while, and just … whatever.

But we’re gonna be vexed by it, man. Every five days, we’ll be haunted by the ghost of what Darvish once was, and the unreachable specter of what he could be. The arm is there. The talent is there. The know-how is there. All the pieces are there except for the execution, and while I hate to talk about a guy’s mental game without really knowing him, that’s the part that Darvish, his pitching coach, and his manager conceded were at play after his last outing.

A hopeful quote at the Tribune from Joe Maddon sums it up: “(Darvish) is too good. There will be that mental epiphany, or whatever you want to call it. It’s going to happen. I know he’s going to take off, then you’ll see that incredible run he’s going to be on. I’m not just saying that.”

A mental epiphany.

Darvish, himself, admitted he is thinking too much out there, which – now having that confirmed – is not too hard to see with his extraordinarily deliberate pace out there, and how his body language seems to change after adversity strikes. As Maddon told the Sun-Times while pointing to his head, “‘I contend that if we could just get him to turn this off a little bit, and just go play, you’re going to see a great result.”

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy expressed similar sentiments to The Athletic (in an excellent read), wanting to see Darvish get back to competing against the hitter, instead of competing against himself. Moreover, as Hottovy explains, “If you guys would see his bullpens he throws, I mean it’s unbelievable. It’s electric stuff, it’s in the strike zone, it’s shaping pitches the way he wants to and working on things. Back-dooring sliders, all the stuff you see that’s like a video game pitcher, like we talk about. But again in a bullpen, there’s no runners on base, there’s no counts. We can simulate counts and simulate situations, but until you’re on the mound, you’re on an island by yourself, that’s when you have to be able to have those cues and those things to help reset you. And that’s where the mental skills come in big time. We talk about anchor statements. We talk about a mantra in your head that can get you back to that thought process.”

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The “mental” side being the issue is also actually somewhat supported by the data, insofar as this FanGraphs deep dive looks at all the possible ways Darvish could be “worse,” and this isn’t an uh-oh-there-is-a-serious-sign-of-decline-underneath type of situation. His problem truly is limited to his missing the strike zone more often than usual, especially one pitch one. If you’re starting behind 1-0 more often, and then trying to be too fine from there to avoid getting hammered, then the walks are more common because guys can afford to be more patient and lay off your nasty offspeed/breaking stuff.

So, I suppose, the solution is really simply stated! Throw more fastballs in the strike zone on pitch one. Boom. Solved.

Oh, wait … you still have to actually get him to stop thinking so much and just do the thing that a pro’s pro like him is supposed to be able to do every time (throw a strike with the fastball).

How you actually effectuate that – get a guy to stop thinking too much out there and fighting against himself – is a trick for Maddon and Hottovy to try to pull off. I’m sure it’s not easy, and for Darvish, I’m sure there’s a lot of background noise to be thinking about: he had elbow surgery in September, which after a season mostly lost to terrible arm pain that mimicked the pain he felt heading into his Tommy John surgery just a couple years earlier; he struggled badly in his first year with a new team and a huge new contract; the last time he was consistently good, he got lit up on the world’s biggest stage in two dreadful World Series starts, including the series-losing Game Seven. There’s a lot going on for him, I have no doubt.

Anyway, I am going to take some of the advice here myself and not overthink it. Darvish can still get a lot of strikeouts and whiffs, and even when he’s pitching crummily, can still go like five innings of one-run ball (painful as it is to watch unfold). Maybe that’s what he’ll do tonight again, and maybe that’ll be enough for the Cubs to have a chance to win.


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Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.