The MLB’s cold-stove offseason upgraded to at least lukewarm Feb. 12 when the Chicago Cubs and top free agent target Yu Darvish closed on a potentially $150 million deal. That could wind up being a bargain for the game’s preeminent strikeout pitcher over the last five seasons when considering the usual cost of quality starting pitching.
The Cubs now can rest easy with their rotation set heading into spring training, as Darvish’s signing officially signals the end of Jake Arrieta’s tenure on the North Side. The basic numbers support the Cubs’ investment that provides them with a solid top end of Darvish, Jon Lester and Jose Quintana in some undetermined order.
But STATS TVL data – tracking pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) – is anything but basic, and there should be some cause for concern with the majority of Darvish’s 2018 starts set to come against NL Central lineups loaded with left-handed hitting options due to the unbalanced schedule. The projected numbers combined with Darvish’s history against lefties might cause some Cubs fans to tone down the optimism a little.
Chicago led the NL with a .285 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against lefties in 2017, and Lester led all MLB starters striking out 34.1 percent of the left-handers he faced. Darvish, whose 11.04 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest rate of any pitcher since he made his MLB debut in 2012, finished 19th punching out 26.9 percent of lefties he faced between his time with Texas and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That’s a solid rate and not far below the 27.6 percent of right-handers Darvish fanned. But when left-handers put bat on ball? Not as good. Darvish ranked 140th in MLB with a .328 BABIP against lefties compared to a .241 BABIP vs. right-handers that was the sixth lowest in baseball. Despite left-handers having trouble against his slider, Darvish threw his four-seam fastball at a higher usage rate than any of his other pitches.
The results? Well, have a look at how lefties fared against Darvish in the second half:
Of the seven players with at least nine career hits off Darvish, six either bat left-handed or are switch hitters. The outlier is Mike Trout, whose four homers are tied for the most against Darvish with left-handers Brett Gardner and Brandon Moss.
According to Roster Resource, three of the Cubs’ four NL Central foes project to have at least half their non-pitcher spots in the lineup occupied by left-handed hitters. The Reds project to have the most with six, and Darvish might want to refrain from throwing his four-seam fastball against majority of them. TVL data projects Joey Votto to hit .464 against Darvish’s four-seamer with Billy Hamilton (.443) and Scooter Gennett (.427) not far behind.
The Brewers project to start five lefty hitters, and among current NL players with the most hits off Darvish, Stephen Vogt (seven) and Eric Sogard (five, tied for second) are at the top of the list. Milwaukee added another solid lefty bat in Christian Yelich, who came over from Miami in an offseason trade. Yelich is 2 for 5 with a homer and two walks in his career against Darvish, and most of those at-bats are recent.
Yelich has a .471 projected average against Darvish’s four-seamer, and he took that pitch deep in their first-inning matchup July 26 of last season.
You’ll note in the graphic above that lefties hit only .161 against Darvish’s slider in the second half last season. Darvish didn’t take any chances with the four-seamer after Yelich’s homer and retired him on a slider in the third.
That slider should be used often against Matt Carpenter, according to TVL data. Carpenter, who is one of three Cardinals lefties in their projected lineup, has never faced Darvish, but is projected to hit just .116 against his slider. Everything else? .401 against the four-seamer, .395 against the curve and .330 when facing a two-seamer.
Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco are the only Pirates lefties guaranteed to be on the major league roster, with Polanco going 0 for 2 in his only previous matchups with Darvish. Bell projects to hit Darvish’s four-seamer at a .418 average, but despite what’s on paper, it doesn’t mean the Cubs made a mistake in bringing Darvish to the NL Central.
There’s plenty of good in Darvish’s arsenal and he’ll make a difference in one of the majors’ best rotations. He’ll just need to be especially careful with pitch selection in the lefty-loaded division.