Yu Darvish Turning Season Around Behind MLB’s Best Cutter

Yu Darvish has turned his season over the last several starts, the catalyst for which has been an increase in his cutter usage. Formerly just one pitch of many in his expansive repertoire, the cutter has achieved stunning results since turning into his go-to weapon. Not only is it inducing a 32.6% whiff rate, compared to a 13% average in years past, but he’s throwing it much more frequently.

After making up only 10-15% of his pitches over the previous three seasons, the cutter now comprises 36% of Darvish’s offerings. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, he throws the best cutter in all of MLB. And we’re not talking about a fluke of small samples, since both his overall (18.8) and per-100 pitch (2.46) marks at No. 1 by wide margins.

That value comes from the pitch’s lethality against both righties and lefties, as opposing hitters have put up just a .186 batting average and .247 wOBA when facing the cutter. Those numbers are good enough sans context, but they’re extremely low when accounting for the juiced ball. 

The pitch is still in the same velocity band as before, actually slightly slower at 87 mph, and it’s 2676 rpm spin rate has also remained relatively static. So what’s the difference between this year’s MLB-best results and getting knocked around?

As simple as it sounds, one of the biggest differences appears to be placement. As Devan Fink recently pointed out in FanGraphs, Darvish is doing a much better job of avoiding the heart of the zone in favor of working around the edges.

2017 cutter location
2019 cutter location

The most obvious improvement, however, is the movement Darvish is generating. The horizontal movement has always been good, but the cutter used to have a lot less vertical drop which made it look like a traditional cutter. 

That additional depth has combined with improved location to make it the best cutter in baseball. As long as he’s able to command it like this, expect Darvish to continue piling up starts like we’ve seen from him lately.

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