Yu Darvish has historic month of August

Jacob VanZuiden, Courier Staff

The Chicago Cubs currently sit at 70-61 on the season as we stroll into September, holding onto the final Wild Card spot in hopes of reaching the postseason for the fifth time in as many years.

Aside from battling the red-hot Cardinals and always-competitive Brewers for the division crown, perhaps their place in the standings would be higher if not for their lackluster pitching, predominantly out of the bullpen. Even as far as their starting rotation goes, “ace” of the staff Jon Lester has taken a big step back this season (his 4.49 ERA is the highest it’s been since 2012) while the rest of the rotation has struggled to find a consistent rhythm on the road.

Fortunately, for the Northsiders, one major bright spot for the team as of late has been a guy that, before the season started, fans around the league would’ve scoffed at if you told them he’s been one of the best in all of baseball. The man being spoken of is none other than four-time all-star Yu Darvish. Darvish’s first go-around with the Cubs in 2018 didn’t go anywhere near as planned. After signing a massive six-year, $126 million contract in February, Darvish went on to start just eight games for the team before his season was cut short by a stress reaction in his pitching elbow.

In those eight starts, Darvish managed an ERA of just 4.95, allowing a career-high of 1.6 home runs per nine innings; not exactly what Chicago expected out of their newly-prized arm. Aside from his injury, he just didn’t look like himself. His early 2019 performance didn’t do much to ease fans’ worries, either, showing control issues as he struggled to find his footing. As of May 9, his 33 walks led the entire MLB and he was seemingly losing confidence in his ability to be an effective major-league pitcher.

Then everything changed. It took a few months for him to get going, but he was finally able to clear his mind from the elbow issue that was likely haunting his mindset. Around mid-June, the Japanese hurler got the confidence boost he desperately needed and was reminded that he still has some of the most dominant stuff in the game. His fastball, a pitch that has always been Darvish’s go-to, is now miles better than what it was to begin the year. In his first 13 starts of the season, Darvish’s fastball was hitting the strike zone just 49 percent of the time. However, in his last 13, that number has spiked to 57 percent. In fact, his strike percentage as a whole has jumped from 56 percent to 70 percent. Not only is he now throwing more strikes, but his swing-and-miss rate has seen a significant uptick as well.

Again, tracing back to his first 13 starts, he was forcing a swing-and-miss just 21 percent of the time compared to the 32 percent clip he’s managed in his past 13 starts. This is simply night-and-day and has driven the narrative that the more Darvish has hit the zone with his fastball, the more willing batters have been to chase his devastating off-speed pitches. Additionally, the abundance of breaking-balls in his repertoire now features a filthy knuckle-curve, something newly-acquired closer Craig Kimbrel showed him a few weeks prior.

In the month of August, Darvish took his game to an entirely new level, posting historically-good numbers. He finished August with an eye-popping 43:1 strikeout to base-on-balls ratio, something only five other pitchers since 1920 have accomplished. Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon has certainly liked what he’s seen from Darvish lately, acknowledging that the way he’s been pitching is something he’s been capable of all along. Last week, Maddon stated the following to the media after Darvish dazzled in his previous start against the Philadelphia Phillies, going seven innings while allowing just four hits (zero earned runs), striking out 10 in the process.

”Now we’re seeing who Yu Darvish actually is. What he probably looked like in Japan. I’ve seen him like this in Texas,” said Maddon. “Now he’s pitching with that kind of confidence. I think we’re seeing all of what he’s capable of doing right now.”

Darvish still currently possesses a 4.25 ERA on the season, which doesn’t exactly jump off the page. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story of just how good he’s been. In fact, Darvish’s superb summer has all but surely launched him into the conversation for 2019 Comeback Player of the Year. More importantly, the Cubs now know they have a new ace of their staff that they can rely on come postseason time. As October inches closer, the team will need him to be dominant, something that hasn’t been a problem recently as he works his way back to elite form.