Yu Darvish could become a very rich man next winter, but the stars will have to align just right.
They don't give out monstrous free-agent contracts to just anyone, you know. Pitchers least of all. Only five have crossed into the rarefied greenery of $150-plus million: CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, David Price and Zack Greinke.
Asked about the right-hander's future with the Rangers going into his walk year in 2017, Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News wrote: "I got the strong impression that Darvish was very open to discussing an extension and that there was a logical framework of about $30 million per year and five to six years around which to work."
The Rangers wouldn't be out of their minds if they extended Darvish at those rates.
Among pitchers with at least 600 innings since 2012, he's top 10 in adjusted ERA (129 ERA+) and OPS against (.645). He also has the best strikeout rate (11.3 K/9). And with his age-30 season on deck, he's a year younger than fellow 2017-2018 free-agent prize Jake Arrieta.
But while Darvish has been great when he has been able to pitch, being able to do so has been the problem. Since peaking with 32 starts and 209.2 innings in 2013, he's made just 22 starts in 2014, missed all of 2015 and returned for just 17 regular-season starts in 2016.
So, if Darvish wants to be a $150 million pitcher, he has two options: He can try to squeeze an extension out of the Rangers now, or he can boost his stock with an ace-like season in 2017.
If the latter is what he has in mind, let's talk about what must be on his to-do list.
Darvish is a pitcher, so this is like a film director telling their actors not to flub their lines.
But hey, he brought this on himself. He missed time with neck and elbow injuries in 2014 and then missed all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He didn't return until late May of 2016 and then promptly went down with a sore neck and shoulder.
Rich Hill's $48 million contract proves that teams are willing to spend good money on injury-prone pitchers as long as they have ace talent. But the really big money won't find Darvish unless he stays on the mound for over 200 innings.
This will ultimately be up to the injury bug, of course. All Darvish can do is minimize his risk of injury.
One positive is that he's already cut down on his slider usage, going from a peak of 30.7 percent in 2013 to roughly 17 percent in two seasons since. Per research from Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs, Darvish has thus crossed over to the safe side from the not-safe side with his slider usage.
|Yu Darvish Slider Usage|
|Source: Brooks Baseball|
Just as important is how Darvish's efficiency is trending.
He started his career with a high walk rate (4.2 BB/9) to go with his high strikeout rate. He got his BB/9 down to a respectable 2.8 in 2016 and also threw a career-low 3.8 pitches per plate appearance. In what looks like a related story, he was more consistent with his release points.
If these things keep up in 2017, Darvish won't be playing with fire by throwing too many sliders and won't be pushing himself too hard with his pitch counts. These things can only help preserve him.
Then, it would just be a matter of him dominating as best he can. To that end, something else should carry over from 2017...
Keep Keeping Lefty Hitters Honest
Darvish has been nasty against all comers, but he's been nastier against right-handed batters than left-handed batters. He's held the former to a .609 OPS. The latter have managed a .671 OPS.
However, this changed for the better last season. Darvish limited lefty batters to a career-best .607 OPS, with career-best strikeout (12.1 K/9) and walk (3.3 BB/9) rates to boot.
The big difference? Darvish tipped his hand last August.
Before 2016, Darvish used his four-seam fastball only 27.6 percent of the time against lefties. That number jumped to 42.3 percent in 2016, and nearly a third of the four-seamers he threw against lefties found the inner third of the strike zone or beyond:
- 2012: 24.6%
- 2013: 17.3%
- 2014: 22.1%
- 2016: 31.2%
The inside fastballs themselves didn't do much to quell left-handed batters. But they did help open up the rest of the plate. On pitches down the middle and away, Darvish held lefties to career lows in batting average (.223) and slugging percentage (.362).
That's one challenge conquered. The next one Darvish should put in his sights is...
Give the High Fastball a Try
The slider is Darvish's best pitch. It looks like a special effect and is a special kind of effective. The .156 average against it is one of the lowest in the PITCHf/x era.
But since he's (rightfully) scaling back his slider usage, it wouldn't hurt Darvish to add another dominant pitch to his arsenal. My modest proposal: the high fastball.
The downside? It was also responsible for 11 of the 16 home runs he gave up last year. Hitters also had a .529 slugging percentage against it.
The flaw is in how Darvish uses it. His preference is to work down in the zone with it. That's not a bad idea in itself, but the danger is any fastball that misses up will find the heart of the zone. Lo and behold, that's becoming more of a problem for him.
Aiming up with more fastballs is the ideal course correction. And not just because Darvish held hitters to a .378 slugging percentage on the high hard ones he threw in 2016. Even better is how up in the zone has been the best place for him to miss bats with his four-seamer throughout his whole career:
This would be no small adjustment, but Darvish would be glad he made it. If he needs further validation of the idea, he can give Justin Verlander a call.
Now that he's almost two years removed from Tommy John surgery and is coming off a promising return in 2016, it's fair to view Darvish as one of the best pitchers in baseball going into 2017. If he stays healthy, continues to own lefties and adds the high fastball to his arsenal, he'll remove all doubt.
Then all he'll have to do is cash in.