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Can Yu Darvish Turn It Around After a Brutal July?

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Yu Darvish is one of the pitchers whose performance suffered the most post sticky stuff crackdown. Darvish’s ERA was sparkling prior to July, sitting in the 2.50-3.10 range for most of the year, but in July he pitched to a brutal 7.36 ERA. It’s worth noting that Darvish’s first start in August was a success (7.0 IP, 2 ER, 12 Ks), but it came against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a true outlier offense that often masks flaws in pitchers. Because of that, we still need to dive into what happened in July to forecast Darvish’s performance going forward.

Darvish’s central issue in July was quite clearly home runs. In July Darvish allowed nine home runs; in all of the other months combined he’s allowed 11. On one hand, Darvish’s 25 percent HR/FB ratio in July screams that he was a victim of bad luck, but it’s not that simple. Darvish allowed opposing hitters a 12.8% barrel rate in July and prior to July his worst mark in any month was 7.1%. The barrel rate was part of the reason that he also posted by far his worst xSLG in any month this season with a .428 xSLG in July. Essentially, Darvish was missing with location up and middle in the zone and allowing harder contact on airborne hits. Overall, he still did a good job limiting opposing average exit velocities (87.9 MPH), but he made some bad mistakes and got punished. Even when pitchers make mistakes it’s unusual for them to be capitalized on by opposing hitters as much as Darvish’s were in July, so there was some bad luck involved. The HR/FB ratio shows it, and so does a .621 SLG allowed compared to the .428 xSLG.

Home runs were the biggest issue in July, but Darvish also allowed more hits than he had in any other month and posted his worst K rate in any month this season. A .275 BABIP in July isn’t a bad luck outlier by normal standards, but for Darvish, it’s not far off. Darvish’s primary pitch, his cutter, performed much worse in July than it had in any month prior, with hitters batting .313 and slugging .688 against the pitch. Interestingly, the cutter also posted its best xBA (.202) and xSLG (.287) of the season in July by a longshot. That discrepancy is massive, and it does appear that Darvish had really tough luck in that regard. In response, he threw the cutter less and less as the month went on, which might not have been the right thing to do, though it is understandable based on the results.

Despite not altering its usage in any meaningful way, Darvish’s four-seamer allowed plenty of hits, including four home runs in July after allowing zero homers all season before July 1st. It’s been well documented that four-seamers have suffered the most of any pitch post sticky stuff crackdown. With reduced spin rate and ride, it’s much easier for hitters to do major damage against high heaters. Simply put, Darvish will have to adjust and likely alter his four-seamer usage and location. The reduced spin rate and ride on Darvish’s four-seamer is also a big factor in terms of strikeouts. Darvish’s four-seamer whiff rate (like most other pitchers) dropped down to around 37 percent post crackdown after living in the 40-43 percent range prior. None of Darvish’s non-four-seamer pitches have seen meaningful whiff rate reductions, however, so Darvish’s stuff seems to be mostly intact. Perhaps due to having less grip on the ball, location has been the overarching issue more so than the stuff.

Darvish, like many other top pitchers in the game, is still learning how to pitch without grip-enhancing substances. In July he allowed a massive amount of barrels and home runs due to poor command and reduced four-seamer spin rate, but he also had an unusual amount of mistakes punished. Darvish’s cutter also got crushed in July even though Statcast indicates that the pitch should’ve performed the best it had all season long. Finally, Darvish also had a small reduction in K rate in July, but besides a drop in whiff rate with his four-seamer, that phenomenon appears to be due to variance more than anything else. Overall, Darvish will need to sharpen up his location and continue to adapt in the post sticky stuff era, but his brutal July was influenced by a lot of bad luck. Going forward I expect Darvish to perform at a much higher level than he did in July, but it’s doubtful that he can replicate his 2020 or early season 2021 production without foreign substances, even if he comes close.

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