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Yu Darvish’s Rediscovery Has Turned Into a 2020 Resurgence

After a couple of down years, the Cubs pitcher has flipped a switch and become the best pitcher in the National League

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in June, Chicago Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish made headlines by breaking out something he called “the Supreme.”

This new pitch, by Darvish’s account, is the 11th in his arsenal, a total so high as to confound the top public baseball stats sites: Baseball Savant says Darvish has thrown six distinct pitch types this season; Brooks Baseball says eight. The fact that Darvish needed to name his new pitch speaks volumes. He already throws a sinker, a splitter, and at least two curveballs. The taxonomical lexicon of baseball, which extends far enough to describe an eephus pitch (Darvish is known to break that out every so often, too) was simply not prepared for a tinkerer who makes Zack Greinke look like Mariano Rivera.

Armed with the Supreme, a four-seamer, a hard cutter, a splitter, and a partridge in a pear tree, Darvish has been the best pitcher in the National League in 2020. He’s won five of his six starts, holds a 1.70 ERA, and has struck out 44 while walking just six in 37 innings. The control problems that plagued the four-time All-Star in his first year and a half in Chicago seem to have evaporated; Darvish has the fifth-lowest walk rate of the 48 qualified starters in baseball this year and is throwing 46 percent of his pitches for strikes, the fourth-highest percentage among that group.

Darvish’s repertoire has evolved throughout his career, and while he has tweaked his pitch usage significantly since mid-2019 to move away from his four-seamer, his recent success stems from much deeper sources than one flashy new addition.

Everyone who’s been watching baseball long enough remembers one pitching performance that stands out above all others. One singularly dizzying display of skill, power, and guile to which nothing before or since ever really measured up. Here’s mine:

On the third day of the 2013 regular season, Darvish retired the first 26 Astros he faced before Marwin González—before he was Marwin González—took the 26-year-old’s 111th pitch back up the middle with two outs in the ninth.

Of the 111 pitches Darvish threw that night, 78 were strikes, and of those 26 came on swings and misses. Darvish struck out 14 batters on a combination of tailing, perfectly spotted 96 mph fastballs; sweeping 84 mph sliders; and 82 mph curveballs that tumbled out of the air like a pigeon struck by lightning. According to Brooks Baseball, Darvish threw seven different pitch types in his near-perfect game, ranging more than 30 miles per hour and 21 inches in vertical break. I watched this performance alone in my apartment, and after a few innings, I realized I was gasping, shouting, pulling faces every time a new pitch got lost on the way to the backstop and wandered into the catcher’s mitt.

There’s a phrase I often come back to when referencing certain right-handed power pitchers: “This is what it looks like.” This applies most recently to Tigers rookie Casey Mize, but also Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, among others. “It” is the archetypal ace, the 220-inning ace who not only has a mid-90s fastball, but also the ability to command multiple secondary pitches to both sides of the plate. He has the physical stature to stare down hitters, the aggressiveness to attack with any pitch in any situation, and the cool, simmering menace to do so in high-pressure situations.

Darvish stands 6-foot-5 with a beefy, 220-pound frame. For most of his career, his fastball averaged around 94 miles per hour, but he could reach back for 99 if he needed it. He deployed his pitches in devastating combinations like a boxer’s punches: the jabbing fastball, the crossing slider, the hook, the overhand curve. Darvish became the most expensive overseas import in baseball history in January 2012 because this is what it looks like.

But even compared to other aces like Cole, Noah Syndergaard, or Justin Verlander, Darvish always had something extra. His delivery is a little more drop-and-drive than most pitchers of his height, and his breaking pitches are slow, with expansive lateral movement instead of (or rather, in addition to) the tight, hard slider that’s fashionable among big league pitchers now.

There’s never been a pitcher quite like Darvish because there’s never been a pitcher with Darvish’s particular background. Each exciting Japanese MLB newcomer from Hideo Nomo to Shohei Ohtani has been compared to the pitcher who most recently preceded him. In the winter of 2011-12, when Darvish was posted, the American media coverage surrounding him—and there was a lot of it—almost always mentioned Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But apart from country of origin and World Baseball Classic heroism, the comparison to Matsuzaka was inapt. Matsuzaka—who, despite what most people seem to remember, pitched effectively in MLB—was the apotheosis of the stereotypical Japanese finesse pitcher. The Japanese game and American game are different enough, culturally and tactically, that pitching pedagogy diverges wildly between the two countries. Japanese pitchers tend to throw more as kids and are taught to pitch to contact. Those who make it in MLB—like Nomo, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda—often work off a sinker or some other ground ball–inducing pitch. American pitchers, meanwhile, are taught to throw hard and miss bats.

Darvish was the first Japanese player on MLB’s radar who had the ability to pitch like a stereotypical American player, but that duality hasn’t always been a comfortable fit for Darvish. As a young pro in Japan, Darvish was a massive celebrity for his on-field performance, but also a controversial figure among people who considered him insufficiently Japanese. In 2008, Bobby Valentine—the former Mets skipper who was then the manager for NPB’s Chiba Lotte Marines—told ESPN’s Jim Caple that his scouting director had passed on Darvish, the son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, because he “didn’t think he was what our fans really would like to root for.”

Darvish turned out to be quite easy to root for. He posted a sub-2.00 ERA in each of his last five seasons in Japan. (He also famously posed nude for a ladies’ lifestyle magazine, which may not be strictly relevant to his pitching but certainly inflated his celebrity.) In his first season in MLB, he finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting—an unfortunate consequence of coming to the majors the same year as Mike Trout and Yoenis Céspedes—and followed that up with a 32-start tour de force in 2013 in which he allowed the fewest hits per inning of all AL starters and struck out more batters than anyone else in baseball.

By mid-2014, Darvish was well established as one of the very best pitchers in baseball, with three consecutive All-Star appearances in his first three seasons. But a week before his 28th birthday, Darvish blew out his elbow and missed nearly two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. He returned to the Rangers in mid-2016, but couldn’t seem to return to his 2013 form. At the 2017 trade deadline, the Dodgers sent three prospects to Texas in order to acquire the services of Darvish, a free agent-in-waiting. And while he pitched well in the NLDS and NLCS, he didn’t truly reemerge in the limelight until the World Series.

That World Series was a comprehensive debacle for Darvish. He failed to get out of the second inning in either of his starts, struck out zero of the 22 batters he faced, and took two losses. During the first, Darvish was on the receiving end of a racist gesture from Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel. In the second, a decisive Game 7, he got absolutely smoked. After the game, Astros DH Carlos Beltrán intimated that Darvish had been tipping his pitches; it would be two years before the whole truth came out. By the regular-season stats alone, Darvish never fell that far from his peak, but the last time Darvish was so firmly in the sport’s spotlight, he was going through the worst week of his career.

Nearly four months after that series, Darvish signed a $126 million contract with the Cubs, but it wasn’t long before he was back on the IL. He made just eight starts in 2018 before suffering a triceps strain and stress reaction in his pitching elbow. That ended his season and, coupled with the humiliating end to the 2017 season, Darvish looked like a star on the wane.

Darvish tinkers with his pitches so much, and throws so many types to start, that a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of his resurgence raises more questions than it answers. But Brooks Baseball groups types of pitches into three categories: hard, breaking, and off-speed, and examining Darvish’s change across those categories is useful.

In July 2019, 49.3 percent of the pitches Darvish threw were classified as “hard,” the first time in his MLB career he’d dropped below 50 percent hard pitches in a month. Darvish was finding new ways to attack hitters through a revamped cutter and increased volume of breaking balls, and because of that, his results began to improve markedly. Darvish’s overall 2019 stats look pedestrian by his standards, but from July 1 until the end of the year, he posted a 2.95 ERA with an opponent batting line of .204/.233/.398—and even those numbers might be inflated by the fact that 15 of the 66 hits Darvish allowed left the park, courtesy of the juiced ball that dogged Verlander and others last year.

Darvish had to wait 10 months from the end of the 2019 season and Opening Day 2020, but he returned to the mound this July as sharp as he’d been the previous summer. After his most recent start, a seven-inning gem against the White Sox on Sunday, Darvish told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic that he was pitching with confidence and felt better about his fastball than he had in years. Indeed, Darvish’s whiff rate on his four-seamer is 43.2 percent, according to Baseball Savant, and he’s throwing his heater at an average of 95.8 miles per hour—both career highs by far.

But he’s also clocking career-high whiff rates on his slider and cutter, and his curveball is spinning faster and breaking harder vertically than it ever has before, even in that magical 2013 season. Darvish told Sharma that he feels like hitters are having trouble catching up to his heater, and while the added velocity is obviously part of the story, velocity is troublesome for hitters only in contrast to the speed and movement of breaking pitches, of which Darvish is throwing more than ever.

Darvish is rediscovering—or perhaps even surpassing—the unique style and stuff that made him one of the best and most exciting pitchers in the world in his mid-20s. And now, as then, there isn’t one explanation, no one template or archetype that explains everything. It’s health, it’s confidence, it’s an evolving arsenal and an adaptable approach. It’s the velocity, it’s the breaking stuff, it’s movement, it’s the ability to change speeds. It’s the combination that makes Darvish supreme.