Yu Darvish may not have been perfect by any traditionally accepted measures Wednesday afternoon, but his performance was more than good enough to earn him his first win at Wrigley Field. Not just this year, but as a Cub. Or as a member of any team, since he’d never won there prior to 2018 either. That had to have felt pretty good.
“It’s amazing,” Darvish told reporters after the game. “First win at Wrigley. I was always looking for that first win.”
Hell, that was only his third win of the season and his first since back on April 27 in Arizona. Both of those wins came during an eight-start stretch that saw him post a 5.40 ERA (6.59 FIP) while walking 33 batters over 36.2 innings (8.10 BB/9). He completed six innings only once in that time.
In the 11 starts since, he posted a 4.34 ERA (4.21 FIP) and walked only 17 batters in 66.1 innings (2.31 BB/9). He completed six innings eight times over that span and his record in those games was 0-1, which is both an indictment of pitcher wins and indicative of the kind of faint praise Darvish received all too often.
Whether it was his late velocity, walking fewer than four men, or just not giving up multiple home runs, we always had to find ways to make things seem better. But all the while, things were getting better. Well, some things, since the home runs were still coming in bunches. The walks, though, were not.
Darvish had a paltry 1.47 BB/9 over his previous six starts, and that was before he issued no free passes to the Reds Wednesday. He’s given up no runs on four hits with 15 strikeouts and one walk over his last two starts, perhaps his best outings as a Cub, and now has a 1.27 BB/9 over seven starts that has nearly halved his earlier season mark to 4.13 BB/9.
What really matters, though, is how good the righty has looked. Or rather, how good he’s felt.
“I’m almost like 120% right now,” Darvish said in the clubhouse. “So I don’t need anything right now. It’s perfect, everything.”
You can parse his words however you like, I’m really more interested in these percentages and how Darvish is feeling. Like how he was feeling strong enough to pump a trio of 98 mph fastballs to Yasiel Puig, the last batter he faced, following a mound summit during which pitching coach Tommy Hottovy may have told the pitcher to empty the tank.
Darvish’s final pitch coaxed a swinging strike, after which he spun on the mound and pumped his fist exultantly before walking back to the dugout. He had blown Puig away with a four-seamer, the last of 41 he threw in the game with the second-highest average velocity (94.6 mph) he’s displayed this season (94.9 on 6/10). It’s also the second-most four-seamers he’s thrown, which could be a big indicator of future success.
All those walks Darvish was issuing early came as a result of his lack of fastball control and command. He just didn’t seem to know where it was going and he’d often resort to breaking stuff just to get by, part of the reason his Command+ rating was so abysmal. Darvish can’t or won’t explain the change, saying only that he too is surprised by the drop in walks, but it may not be a coincidence that his highest fastball count (42) came on — anyone wanna guess? — April 27.
He also generated eight whiffs on the four-seam, the most he’s gotten this season. Even though he can throw something like eight other pitches, all of which have different variations, Darvish’s success hinges on that fastball. So when it wasn’t working, nothing else could really get a foothold.
You can’t throw a rock at Wrigley without hitting someone who’ll gladly tell you how big a mistake the Cubs made by signing Darvish. One or two of them might even offer a substantive explanation for their opinion, though his salary and purported mental weakness would likely factor heavily in most cases. Whatever the gripe, Darvish is doing a good job of eliminating them over time.
It’s just that he’s taken a little extra time to do that, which is not at all dissimilar to his developing approach on the mound. Darvish spoke earlier in the season about working deliberately and getting into his rhythm, though it seems like he’s now figured out just how to make that pace work for him.
“He still takes some time in between pitches, but how he’s spending that time seems to be better,” Joe Maddon said. “I don’t think he’s wondering what to do next. I think he’s calculating what to do next. And when he gets back on the rubber ‘here we go.’”
That certainly wasn’t the case earlier in the season, when the starter seemed almost detached out there. It was as though he was no more powerful than the fans, just throwing and hoping his pitches would find the zone. Now, however, he’s going out and executing all of his pitches with an authority that comes from knowing what he needs to throw. Not only that, but knowing he can throw those pitches where and when he wants.
It’s only two starts and most of you will probably need a lot more proof to believe Darvish is capable of maintaining this kind of performance moving forward, I get that. At the same time, this is the pitcher the Cubs though they were getting when they made him their big splash ahead of last season. With both his elbow and his approach finally at full health, Darvish is poised for a big stretch run.