You may or may not have heard that Yu Darvish is back. By any conventional measure, his latest back-to-back starts of six shutout innings, two hits, and seven-plus strikeouts rank among his best in a long time. By measure of “Game Score v2,” which FanGraphs includes in a pitcher’s Game Log, Darvish’s scores of 78 and 79 are his two best starts since 2017. Because some of his better Game Score starts went more than six innings: these are his two best six-inning starts, period. They happened very recently, consecutively, and he didn’t labor through them, either, throwing just 94 and 83 pitches, respectively.
The last two starts were a gift to those who took a leap of faith. Darvish, who walked at least three batters in seven of his first eight starts (33 walks in 36 innings and change!) and 10 of his first 13 (44 walks in 66 innings and change!), was an absolute mess, had compiled a 4.88 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 4.49 xFIP, and 4.96 SIERA in 13 starts, the cherry on top being a walk rate (BB/9) of six. Six! Six batters per nine innings. As my 14-year-old self quoting Ron Burgundy might say: “I’m not even mad — just impressed.”
However, from June 10 to July 3 — a five-start window sandwiched between his early-season futility and his recent wizardry — Darvish struck out 33 and walked just five in roughly 31 innings, compiling a 3.68 xFIP and 3.64 SIERA. The solid peripherals (perhaps excellent, given the current run-scoring environment) were sullied by a 5.28 ERA and 5.56 FIP, the latter of which alludes to Darvish’s trouble with the long ball. (He gave up nine in those five games.)
Still, the strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.6 K/BB) alluded to a subtle but effective shift in approach. It took me a while in digging through tables and graphs to decide upon a once-culprit and now-savior: release point. But it’s not just anything to do with release point, no. You can see slight yet steady changes in his vertical and horizontal release points, but each metric lacks the abrupt change that suggests to me a paradigm shift.
No, the aspect of Darvish’s release point that has cultivated change is the depth of his release — aka, extension. His extension plots show not only abrupt rifts but also abrupt rifts that coincide perfectly with his run of partial excellence beginning June 10:
Click image to enlarge. Click here for source.
You can see the elbow in each line, both of which occur precisely on the first pitch of his June 10 start. One could argue Darvish’s extension on his cutter had been slowly changing over time, and that’s fine — I’ll accept that counterpoint, especially because the cutter was already pretty good and wasn’t profoundly affected by all of this.
However, something did very clearly change with Darvish’s four-seamer, the pitch with which he had struggled most. The change manifested in fewer balls for every pitch but especially for his four-seamer:
|Through 6/5||6/10 onward|
|Pitch||# thrown||Ball%||# thrown||Ball%||Change|
It’s just a couple hundred fastballs, but Darvish has thrown 15% fewer balls with his four-seamer since his June 10 start. That’s a lot more strikes! And that’s not the only positive benefit. His velocity has increased, too:
Click image to enlarge. Click here for source.
Again, I acknowledge his four-seamer’s velocity had been steadily increasing, as clearly evidenced by the graph. Yet, despite the existing trend, you can still see that same elbow, right there, right at that poorly drawn red arrow, right at the transition from Darvish’s June 5 start to his June 10 start.
All of this ties back to extension, I think. The issue is not as perfectly black-and-white as this, but: the inverse of extension, all else constant, is the duration for which a pitcher holds onto the ball. The longer he holds onto the ball, the closer to home plate he will release the ball. What happens when a pitcher holds onto the ball too long (or not long enough)? What happens when he forgets when exactly to release his pitch?
I can’t prove this is the cause to the effect, but, at the very least, I’ve convinced myself of it, at least in Darvish’s case. We are talking mere inches, literal milliseconds, of holding onto the ball too long, something Rick Ankiel (and maybe Darvish!) knows all too well. Release timing matters as much as anything else, but it’s less mechanical than other aspects of pitching. It’s not purely mental, but it can become painfully so when it’s off. Timing may not have been the only thing wrong with Darvish, but it seemed to me to certainly be at least a thing wrong with him.
During his July 17 start, a visibly jazzed Darvish wore his heart on his sleeve, and rightfully so. He’s back on track. And while other parts of his game need to improve (namely, the one about allowing home runs), he has done himself the best favor he can do by becoming more efficient. He’s throwing more strikes and preventing the most easily-preventable of baserunners. He can actually throw beyond the sixth inning with ease (if Joe Maddon allows him to), something he has done only three times in 20 opportunities this year.
Darvish’s 3.47 xFIP, 3.38 SIERA, and .298 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) allowed after June 5 paint the portrait of a pitcher who should be performing (and may soon steadily perform) far better than the average starting pitcher. If Darvish was on your league’s waiver wire, he’s probably not anymore. That said, he makes for a sneaky buy-low trade target made sneakier by his recent outburst of excellence, which may be more fact than fluke. If the Darvish owner in your league is wary to trust him, take advantage of his or her reluctance.