Yu Darvish’s Turnaround Provides Mild Relief from Otherwise Lousy Second Half

The Cubs have been a mediocre team for a long time, dating back to well before the current six-game skid that has them ready to abandon this sinking ship of a season. After Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals saw them swept out of Wrigley in their final home series of 2019, the Cubs are at 60-61 over the last 121 games. They’re actually worse if you pare the sample back a little, but the end result is the same.

And the result is an 82-74 record that, for the time being, comes from being four games over in each half of the season. Is it weird to think those numbers are wrong and they’re actually worse than that? Probably not, since the expectations carried into this “season of reckoning” were for something much better. Unless you’re Baseball Prospectus, in which case the Cubs have exceeded projections.

Yu Darvish knows a little something about expectations, having toiled under them throughout his entire career. That is especially true of his time in Chicago, which was first marked by an inability to stay on the field and was then plagued by an allergy to the strike zone. Those issues were really one in the same, since the stress reaction in his elbow that limited Darvish to 40 innings in 2018 hurt his confidence and kept him from really cutting it loose until well into this season.

The walks started to fade in June, but it wasn’t until around mid-July that the big righty really began to settle into a groove and has been dominant at times. His 13.01 K/9 mark comes from striking out 118 men in 81.2 innings, but what’s really incredible is the 0.77 BB/9 from walking only seven in that same stretch. Seven walks in 13 starts is a far cry from walking seven in his first start.

Darvish had been looking good for quite a while, but it was the discovery of the knuckle curve that really helped him to take off. That’s an incredible story all on its own, since he learned the pitch from Craig Kimbrel in late August and immediately implemented it into game action. Not long after, it had already become his favorite pitch. It’s pretty wild that a pitcher could even get mildly comfortable with a new breaking ball that quickly, let alone make it his preferred out-pitch.

His confidence was already high, so adding the knuckle curve served to turn the volume up that much further. That in turn has led to some historic results, as Darvish became the first Cubs pitcher since Kerry Wood to register three consecutive double-digit strikeout games. But in notching 14, 13, and 12 K’s, Darvish became the first Cubs pitcher on record to go to at least 11 in three straight. He’s just the 22nd pitcher since 1908 to reach 12 or more K’s three times in a row.

Unfortunately, it all went for naught Sunday afternoon as Darvish was unable to make another anemic offensive performance stand up. He didn’t take the loss lightly, struggling to put his emotion into words as he showed media members the muddy smear across his locker from where he’d angrily tossed his cleats after the game.

“I’m so frustrated. Worst in my life,” Darvish told reporters. “You can see [the mud], right?”

It was a quick swing from being left in to finish the game, something he hasn’t done since June 11, 2014 with the Rangers. Joe Maddon’s choice to let his starter go after repeatedly giving him a quick hook earlier in the season wasn’t just a matter of avoiding the bullpen. It’s a sign that Darvish has earned his manager’s trust, something that’s been a long time coming.

“I was so happy at that point,” Darvish said of being left in for the 9th inning. “But right now everything just… there’s no words right now, sorry.”

Man, I know what you mean. Or Yu means, whatever. There really isn’t anything you can say after dropping five straight one-run games to drop to within inches of postseason elimination, since this collapse is really inexplicable. Unless you feel like explicking it with all the injuries and bullpen implosions and inability to keep pace with the rest of the league in terms of hard contact.

But there’s a helluva lot of low-hanging doom fruit on the tree, much of which is already fetid, so I’m choosing for the moment to focus on how Darvish has emerged as the ace the Cubs thought they had signed when they let Jake Arrieta walk. How’s that working out so far? Pretty good, I’d say. It’s impossible to quantify momentum in sports, particularly in baseball, but you have to think Darvish will carry a lot of this second-half success into next season.

He already has the most varied pitch repertoire ever measured by MLB, and the new curve gives him back the pitch he lost in the wake of his 2015 Tommy John surgery. Fully healthy and with a full offseason to further hone his new pitch(es?), Darvish should be ready to hold down the top of the rotation.

The thought is almost enough to stir something in a soul that has otherwise gone cold and dead over the course of this season. Almost. Because he could still opt out this winter.

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