Darvish a luxury add for baseball’s best team

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Instead, this deal is entirely about October. It’s about insurance for ace Clayton Kershaw, currently on the disabled list, and Alex Wood and Rich Hill, each extremely talented yet with limited track records as far as durability goes. And if all three are happy and healthy when October comes, it’s about preventing the annual dilemma of “Kershaw on short rest in Game 4 or gambling on a lesser starter,” though even in this case, those “lesser starters” — Kenta Maeda, Brandon McCarthy, and Hyun-Jin Ryu — are all appealing options.

Darvish's eight stellar innings

Plenty will be made about adding a righty starter to a lefty-heavy rotation, but that’s really overblown, given the days off in short playoff series. (Again, the rest of the regular season doesn’t matter all that much for the Dodgers.) The Dodgers didn’t need depth, because they have plenty of depth, and already had baseball’s best rotation. If they were going to add, it was going to be someone worth pairing with Kershaw.

But is Darvish still that dominant ace, given his current numbers? Let’s find out.

The good news, first, is that his velocity is just fine, important to note given that he missed all of 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. If anything it’s up, from 92.4 mph in 2014 before he was hurt to 93.3 mph last year and 94.1 mph this year. Plus, there was potentially an easily fixable reason for the Marlins debacle, since he was reportedly tipping his pitches, especially his fastball. And, in the start immediately before the Miami game, he struck out 12 Rays.

What’s especially interesting about the Tampa Bay game is how it happened. Famous for his wide assortment of pitches, Darvish threw 56 four-seam fastballs against the Rays, the third-highest frequency of his career, and according to the since-traded Jonathan Lucroy, that was no accident.

“He’s been using his fastball up and really, really trying to get away from using his offspeed stuff so much, and it’s just making him more effective,” Lucroy said. “I mean, you saw the strikeouts just pile up.”

“I recognized that my velocity was a little bit up,” Darvish said through a translator. “I think it’s because of making a little adjustment with the release, and then also the way I work out. After the All-Star break, it’s coming out as a result.”

Darvish strikes out Correa

With the Marlins apparently sitting on the fastball thanks to Darvish tipping it, he threw just 23, and he got rocked. The increased fastball usage is important because it mirrors exactly what we said about Darvish last summer. At the time, we noted not only that Darvish planned to use the four-seamer more, but that it had extremely high spin. High four-seam spin is highly correlated to swinging strikes, and Darvish remains near the top of the leaderboard, with some big names.

Four-seam spin leaders, starting pitchers, 2017
2536 RPM — Justin Verlander
2512 RPM — Darvish
2506 RPM — Sonny Gray
2504 RPM — Tyler Chatwood
2497 RPM — Max Scherzer

Any team would love Darvish, of course, but the Dodgers collectively have baseball’s third-highest four-seam spin rate and have collected arms who love to throw high fastballs. We’re thinking Darvish is going to fit in just fine here.

So what’s the bad news? The whiff rate is down, largely because his vaunted slider isn’t collecting strikeouts like it once did. (Usually with a swinging strike rate in the 17 percent to 20 percent range, that’s down to 13 percent this year, with five homers off it, after just 10 in his entire career before this year.) The home run rate is up, from 0.81 per 9 in 2014 to 1.08 last year to 1.31 this year, though that largely mirrors the increase across the sport. And the Statcast™ quality of contact metrics say he really has been hit harder, going from elite (top five of 181 last year) to merely above-average (44th of 153 this year). It would be inaccurate to say there’s no concerns.

But the upside here is obvious. It can’t hurt that he’s going from the American League to the National, where he’ll face the pitcher and not the DH. It can’t hurt that he’s leaving the shockingly weak pitch framing of Lucroy (rated second-weakest by Baseball Prospectus) to the elite skill of Yasmani Grandal (rated second-strongest). We saw, after all, how leaving Grandal affected Zack Greinke in Arizona in 2016.

That’s what the Dodgers paid for, anyway: upside. They didn’t need Darvish, not really. They were just fine without him, which is why they weren’t willing to give up their top trio of prospects to get him. But this is clearly their year, and they weren’t about to let this year’s team head into October without every possible asset at their disposal. If Darvish adds value in October, the deal will be worth it. If he doesn’t? They might be good enough anyway.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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