Ed. note: This was written prior to Darvish going to the DL with triceps tendinitis. *Sigh*
One of the more pervasive narratives surrounding Yu Darvish this season — and throughout his whole career, really — is that he is mentally weak. He’s not capable of stepping up under the bright lights and pitching well in big moments, or so the scuttlebutt goes. Joe Maddon has railed against that idea more than once already this season, though the big righty’s inconsistent performance has done little to dispel the thought to any significant degree.
While I don’t buy the idea that Darvish is incapable of performing in the clutch because he doesn’t have the fortitude for such situations, I also understand that every myth has at its core at least a kernel of truth. It’s not unlike a tiny speck of grit or a parasite that triggers an oyster to coat it with layer after layer of nacre in order to soothe the irritation.
To that end, I found Peter Gammons’ thoughts on the matter of Darvish’s mindset very interesting. The venerable baseball scribe had joined 670 The Score’s Mully and Hanley (with Tribune columnist David Haugh guest-hosting, full audio embed below) to talk about the Cubs and got into a comparison of Darvish to Justin Verlander, among others.
“I think it’s a really good point because I think it is important,” Gammons responded when asked about Darvish’s upcoming Sunday night start. “The lights are on, you’ve got national TV, it’s a significant start for him. And I think the Dodgers sort of felt that he shied away from those moments.
“It’ll be great watching on Sunday night because for a lot of us there’s just no way of knowing which direction he’s going to go in. I know the Cubs still have a lot of confidence in him. But is he the type of guy who relishes those moments?”
I want to jump in here and point out the important distinction between someone who shies from big moments and someone who simply doesn’t relish them. Opinions on Darvish seem to vary in that regard, understandably so and I fall firmly on the “doesn’t relish” side. That may sound like splitting hairs, but I equate it to the difference between playing to win rather than playing not to lose.
“We know how the Justin Verlanders of the world or the Max Scherzers walk out to the mound in moments like that and go, ‘This is exactly what I live for,'” Gammons explained. “I’m not so sure Yu has quite the same approach and, again, I think it’s self esteem. There are times when he pitches, to me, as if he doesn’t want to let people down.
“And you can’t think that way, you have to be…there has to be a little arrogance in you when you go to the mound.”
When you apply what Gammons is saying to what we’ve seen from Darvish in a Cubs uniform, it makes a lot of sense. That’s not a matter of him being mentally weak, it’s just a different approach, and, while it might not be ideal for his particular role, it’s who Darvish is. Comparing Darvish to Verlander or Scherzer is like saying you and I probably see the world from differing points of view that have been affected by our upbringing and life experience.
Anyone familiar with cultural training in the workplace — some of which is more nuanced and robust than others — understands the concept of recognizing different behavioral styles and being cognizant of a global mindset. That’ll vary based on the size and nature of a given company, of course, but the fact remains that we are all different and all have individual skill sets and motivations that fuel our desire and productivity.
So perhaps the “problems” aren’t with Darvish and his behavioral style, but with the accommodation of his personality and how he does things. If that sounds a little too new-agey for you old-schoolers who believe a verbal reaming or a swift benching should suffice to straighten a player out, I’m sorry. Not that I’m apologizing for my theory, I’m actually sorry you believe what you do.
The idea that a new Cubs pitcher is having difficulty acclimating to a new environment isn’t new by any stretch. In fact, the concept of “onboarding” and the Cubs’ seemingly inadequate practice of it (subscription required/recommended) may very well have been a big part of why Chris Bosio is now coaching in Detroit. There’s clearly much more to it than just the pitching coordinator, though, as we’ve seen issues with Tyler Chatwood in addition to Darvish.
“I don’t not understand 40 walks in, what, 45 2/3 innings for Chatwood,” Gammons said. “I just don’t get that. Unless he’s a little bit nervous about pitching to contact in Wrigley Field.”
So now we’ve got one pitcher who might be nervous and another who may not be too keen on embracing the big moments. Doesn’t that maybe feel like the kind of stuff this Cubs organization would have sussed out given their holistic approach to the total player? They cater heavily to current and prospective players’ emotional well-being, so it figures that they’d have researched those factors in the other direction as well.
Or maybe the issues are simply a matter of the Cubs not knowing what they don’t know, since the way a player will react to new situations and stressors can’t be simulated or predicted by even the most advanced metrics. We’ve heard a lot about the strategic genius of catching instructor Mike Borzello and run-prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy, but their methodology could be creating a whole new set of adjustments for these pitchers.
(It’s) discussing his pitch mix from the last few seasons,” Borzello told Patrick Mooney in regard to Chatwood back in March. “Breaking it down and showing him how predictable he is, asking him why. Why is there so little usage of certain secondary pitches? It’s kind of taking his temperature on why he is who he is – and why he hasn’t done certain things that I’m going to ask him to do.”
“It’s similar to Jake where you have so many different options,” Borzello explained. “It’s more about finding out who (Darvish) is and then seeing what he’s comfortable with – and then finding out how accepting of being uncomfortable he might be.”
That isn’t to say that what the Cubs are doing with these guys is wrong or bad or anything other than exactly right, only that getting used to a new way of pitching — or of thinking about pitching, to be even more specific — could have them inside their own heads too much. It’s been noted that Darvish needs to take his time and slow down mentally, and Chatwood’s busy delivery leaves more than a little room for psychological sabotage.
There also exists the possibility that the Cubs’ overall laissez faire attitude has played a role. Accuse me of tilting at windmills if you like, but it seems at times as though their (over)confidence in the ability to turn it on at will may mean they’re content to keep their collective foot off the pedal in the early going.
Ah, but there is also plenty of reason to feel good about what the future holds for both of these pitchers, Darvish in particular. After a rough 1st inning in Cincinnati the other day in which his secondaries betrayed him, the big righty settled in and leaned on that heavy heater to bludgeon Reds hitters all afternoon. That kind of confidence could spur him to think less moving forward.
“My take on [Darvish] is that when he kind of gets into a rhythm out there, it’s almost like he stops thinking and just starts pitching,” Maddon said after that Reds game (subscription required, get it here). “I think sometimes he has a tendency to overthink things. When he just goes out there, gets the ball back from the catcher, sees signs, sees glove and throws it, man, he gets really good fast.”
We’ve all fumbled around in the dark confines of a familiar room, stubbing our toes and barking our shins until our searching fingers mercifully find the light switch. That was Darvish early in the season, maybe still is. And maybe he’s even got those fluorescent bulbs that take a while to warm up. Whatever the case, he hasn’t yet found a comfort level with his new team.
Once that happens — and I believe this is true for both Darvish and Chatwood — and the new strategies become second nature, we’re going to see that full potential unleashed. That’s when they’ll start thumbing through pitches in their respective repertoires as easily as songs in an iTunes playlist, deftly rocking and firing with ease and accuracy.
No more worries about letting people down or avoiding contact at Wrigley, just pitching. It won’t happen tomorrow, but the potential is absolutely there. And if the Cubs can find a way to bring Darvish and Chatwood to that point, I’d imagine a lot of folks would be on board. Which is to say, #EverybodyIn.