‘Hey, you’ve got the best stuff in the big leagues’: Inside Yu Darvish’s return to elite status

    Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.

CHICAGO — It was June 26, 2019. Chicago Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish was struggling — like he had done for much of his short Cubs career — against the Atlanta Braves. Then came a mound visit from his pitching coach and a conversation later in the dugout.

Those moments changed the trajectory of Darvish’s career.

“I was talking to Joe [Maddon] in the dugout, and he felt everything was slow,” recalled Tommy Hottovy, then in his first year as Cubs pitching coach under former manager Maddon. “Everything. So I went out there and asked him to pick up the tempo a little more, and that didn’t sit well with him. He thought I meant he was working too slow and had to work quicker, like in between pitches.”

That isn’t what Hottovy meant, but it’s something Darvish had heard before, so the conversation spilled over into the dugout after the inning was over — and it wasn’t lighthearted.

“He was mad,” Hottovy said. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to be told to speed up and to be quick.’

“He took it personally, thinking we were telling him he needed to work faster, but I was talking about the tempo of his delivery. That led to a really good conversation about what he’s been told in the past and how he’s been perceived and why people told him to work quick. That’s not really who he is.”

In that moment — or soon after — Darvish became “who he is” again, and his career took off. From his next start on July 3 to the end of the 2019 season, his ERA was 2.95. But the changes really took hold after the All-Star break. From that time until his start Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals, Darvish has a 2.31 ERA and a minuscule 0.87 WHIP. He’s the National League Cy Young favorite this year, with a nifty 1.47 ERA, and he might even get some MVP votes, as he ranks sixth in the NL in WAR.

“He’s just at a point where he’s really comfortable in who he is,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “There’s so much to be said for that.”

That’s a phrase you hear often, but in Darvish’s case, it isn’t a cliché. The picture being painted of Darvish’s past is one of confinement on the mound. “Work quickly and establish your fastball” has been the mantra for pitchers for 100 years. That isn’t Darvish.

“I’m a slow guy,” he said in a recent Zoom interview. “Before, the guys wanted me to throw more quickly. If I’m focusing on that, I can’t focus on the next pitch. Now I focus on the next pitch. That’s why it takes me so long.”

It’s an explanation Darvish has repeated many times when asked why he’s having so much success now, three years into the six-year, $126 million deal he signed with the Cubs on the heels of his loss to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series, his final appearance as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The first 18 months in Chicago didn’t go as planned. Darvish was hurt for most of 2018, then had control problems at the beginning of last season.

That prompted some texts and conversations with another elite pitcher, Cincinnati Reds righty Trevor Bauer.

“I probably know his arsenal of pitches more than anyone besides him,” Bauer said in a phone interview this week. “There’s a 2013 strikeout montage of all his strikeouts from that season. I have it memorized. It’s, like, a seven-, eight-minute video. I can see it in my head. It was a big inspiration for me, looking at his arsenal.”

Bauer gave Darvish some advice on warming up — use heavy balls, he told him — but his overall message was much simpler. For a guy who can talk tunneling and spin rates all day long, Bauer thought his input didn’t have to be all that complicated.

“I was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got the best stuff in the big leagues,'” Bauer recalled. “‘Throw it over the white thing, and let people beat you.'”

It seems simple enough.

“Last year, in the first half, I struggled with my command, and I texted [Bauer] a lot,” Darvish said. “He gave me a lot of advice, and I tried a lot of things.”

One thing that has worked for Darvish is throwing his cutter more. His fastball was a problem coming out of his injury in 2018. He couldn’t locate it, and even when he did, it got hit hard. Wanting to throw the ball in the strike zone more led him to throw more cutters.

“It adds another dimension of deception for the hitter,” Bauer said. “It has slightly opposite movement to the fastball.”

Bauer calls Darvish’s cutter his “anchor” and a trap for hitters. For a pitcher who can throw anything from a 98 mph fastball to a 62 mph curveball — which he has this year — trapping hitters with a pitch coming in between 85 and 88 mph has worked. The cutter has opened everything up.

“They can’t sit fastball, and they can’t sit slow,” Bauer said. “Pins them in the middle.”

Before the 2019 All-Star break, Darvish threw his cutter 27.7% of the time. That rate jumped to 42.6% after the break. Subsequently, his strike-throwing percentage, whiff rate and his chase rate all went up. His walk percentage plummeted, from 11.7% to 3.1%. This year, he’s throwing his cutter 47.5% of the time, more than any other pitcher in the majors. The rest of his offerings are different-looking sliders, curveballs, splitters and anything else Darvish can pull out of his bag of tricks.

“There’s such variance in the speeds and the action in the curveball, slider and cutter,” Ross said. “And he can throw them to both sides of the plate.”

“He’s gone to an elite setup and usage of pitches,” Bauer added.

That, as much as anything else, is the reason Darvish likes to pitch slowly. He has a lot on his mind.

“When you have a guy as intelligent as Darvish and working through so many pitches, it’s going to take a longer time. It’s why teams have tried to eliminate other pitches with him,” Hottovy said, referring to former teams that wanted Darvish to streamline his repertoire. “It was, ‘Fine, if you’re going to work slow, we’ll just take away pitch X or pitch Y.'”

But then Darvish isn’t Darvish. He didn’t go into specifics, but Darvish recalled going to Hottovy and telling him that he wanted to work at his own pace.

“That didn’t work for me,” Darvish said of moving more quickly. “In June and July last year, I talked to Tommy. I want to focus more on my pitches, not on the tempo. After that, I felt more comfortable.”

This year’s data isn’t available, but last year, Darvish took an average of 29.4 seconds between pitches — the highest mark of his career. The average length of a Cubs game in which Darvish starts went up five minutes after the 2019 All-Star break. The commissioner’s office might not like those stats, but the Cubs don’t mind one bit.

“At the times you do struggle, you have to look yourself in the mirror and realize the type of player that you are,” teammate Kris Bryant said. “I think that’s what he did. He realized he strikes out a ton of guys and competes. You just have to go out there and be yourself. He’s just himself. That’s what you like to see.”

Separately, Bauer and Hottovy both mentioned thinking that Darvish was ahead of his time when he came over from Japan in 2012. Back then, the old “work quickly, throw your fastball” mantra prevailed in baseball. Darvish was pushed in that direction instead of his own.

“I remember there was a video of him facing the Angels, and he had, like, seven pitches coming out looking the exact same,” Bauer said. “That was back before anyone understood what tunneling was.”

Hottovy added: “If he came over now and was 26, he’d be pitching the way he is now. Back then, you had to establish your fastball and then go to your off-speed. He was ahead of his time.”

The Cubs deserve some credit here as well. They had a choice to make a few years ago, when Jake Arrieta, a Cy Young winner, World Series champion and author of two no-hitters, was approaching free agency. With all that on Arrieta’s résumé, the front office let him go in favor of Darvish, who had just fallen apart on the biggest stage in baseball.

Now the same freedom to be himself that allowed Arrieta to flourish in Chicago after he came over from Baltimore is fueling Darvish’s success.

“He’s proven to be remarkably resilient,” team president Theo Epstein told MLB Network earlier this week. “He’s proved to be a very thoughtful individual who cares a lot — and takes things personally.

“He was really determined to face his issues and weaknesses head-on and remade himself on the fly.”

The result was an August pitcher of the month award and a first-place Cubs team headed for the playoffs, this time with Darvish as its ace in place of Arrieta.

The 34-year-old is keeping his emotions close to his vest these days. Darvish’s normally charismatic personality isn’t on display in the Zoom world the way it was in spring training just a few months ago. But his work on the mound hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I’m really happy for him,” Bauer said. “The way the whole Dodgers tenure ended and struggling some with the Cubs out of the gate, seeing a guy that I know cares a lot and is very talented be able to have some success and enjoy the game, it’s very cool to see — especially for someone I’ve looked up to for many years.

“He’s what I wish I could be. I’m just not nearly as talented as he is.”

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