It’s not a coincidence that the headline sounds like a vehicle dubbed the “worst car in history,” since more than a handful of Cubs fans believed they had a lemon on their hands when Yu Darvish first got to town. He seemed either timid or aloof, some of which was a function of his use of an interpreter early on, before an undiagnosed injury limited his performance and cut his 2018 season short.
He was labeled “mentally soft,” a catch-all term used by those unwilling to look any deeper than their own bias, because he couldn’t pitch through elbow pain that kept shutting him down. Some of those folks changed their tunes when more comprehensive testing finally revealed a stress reaction that required surgical correction that offseason, but many clung stubbornly to their preconceived notions.
Though Darvish began to emerge from his shell in earnest heading into 2019, eschewing the interpreter and frequently cracking jokes, his critics were emboldened by his early performance. The walks continued to pile up while the wins did not. Then he dialed in his control to a greater extent than ever before, eventually adding a knuckle curve that elevated him to an elite level late in the season.
And still the box score scouts lamented his 6-8 record because good pitchers need to accumulate arbitrary numbers or something like that. There’s probably nothing Darvish can do in a Cubs uniform that will quiet all of his naysayers, but Tuesday’s performance against the Cardinals offered them all nice warm glass of shut the hell up.
Though it wasn’t close to his best performance on the season, there was something very satisfying about seeing him work around eight hits to limit the Cards to a single run over six innings. Some of that came as a result of leaving some pitches out to be tagged, as evidenced by all the hard contact, but giving up an incredible .471 average on balls in play indicates that Darvish was the victim of a little bad luck.
Perhaps more than any of his previous dominant outings, this one says more about who Darvish is as a person and a pitcher for the Cubs. He told reporters afterwards that his stuff is better than last year, a scary thought for hitters after how good he looked in the second half, but the ability to stay in the moment and pitch through a little adversity was huge.
Darvish allowed at least one hit in each of his first five innings, even loading the bases with two hits and a walk — his only free pass of the evening — to open the top of the 4th inning. Eight pitches later, he was out of the jam with no runs on the board. Though the Cards got to him the next frame to hang their lone run on him, Darvish struck out two and ended on a high note.
“I suffered a lot, but I think I was able to throw it calmly,” reads the translation of Darvish’s postgame tweet. “Thank you for all the power.”
— ダルビッシュ有(Yu Darvish) (@faridyu) August 19, 2020
A lot has been made of his otherworldly repertoire of 11 or so pitches, many of which are simply grip and velocity variations of his primary offerings, but there’s a tendency to turn the whole thing into a novelty act. Even Darvish himself may have fallen prey to that at times, getting cute instead of getting nasty, though the comment about his stuff being better could mean he’s honing in more intentionally on what really works.
“He’s a stud,” Ross told the media after the win. “He has grown into how comfortable he is here with executing a game plan, mixing his full repertoire of pitches, and he looks really comfortable on the mound at all times, even with traffic, which you saw tonight.”
After his six innings of one-run ball against the Cards, Darvish now boasts a 1.80 ERA that sits seventh in MLB among pitchers with at least four starts. His 6.80 K/BB mark is likewise seventh and his 1.50 BB/9 is ninth. Even more impressive, his 2.01 FIP (that’s fielding independent pitching) ranks second overall and his 1.3 fWAR is tied for first.
Oh, he’s also got an MLB-leading four wins for those who still think that matters.
Yu Darvish is an ace and he’s been the Cubs’ best pitcher this season by a pretty wide margin. Now if we can just get him to keep his starts from lasting four hours, there’s really no remaining knock against him.