A big piece of the Texas Rangers’ plan for the 2016 season fell into place Saturday night as Yu Darvish made his first major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2015, showing fantastic form in holding the Pirates to one run over five innings, while striking out seven and picking up the win in Texas’s 5–2 victory in Arlington. Looking every bit like the Cy Young-contending ace he was prior to his injury, the 29-year-old right-hander gave indication that he could indeed prove to be a difference maker in what has thus far been a tight American League West race between the defending division champion Rangers and the upstart Seattle Mariners.
Working on an 80-pitch limit despite having thrown 87 pitches in his final rehab start last Sunday, Darvish looked like he hadn’t missed a game, never mind the actual season and a third he has sat out since his surgery. His fastball sat at 95 mph and spiked to 98. His control, which is often the last thing to come back after Tommy John surgery, was excellent. He made good use of all of his deep array of secondary pitches, including his sinker, cutter, slider, splitter, changeup and a variety of curveballs. Over the course of 81 pitches, he made a batter swing and miss 13 times.
Darvish’s manager, Jeff Banister, concurred in his in-game interview with FOX prior to Darvish’s final inning of work, showing no false modesty in calling Darvish “very impressive.” Adding, “the fastball’s coming out hot and clean. [He] seems to have all of his secondary pitches in play. The strikeability right now and just the intensity by which he’s going at it is pretty impressive.”
Indeed, Darvish held the third-best offense in the National League, according to runs scored per game, to a lone run on just three singles and a walk while striking out seven, six of them swinging. If there was any fault to his performance at all, it was that he seemed indifferent to the opposing running game, allowing a pair of stolen bases. The second of those steals, by catcher Francisco Cervelli, who had nine career steals coming into the game, set up the lone Pittsburgh run in Darvish’s final inning of work.
Darvish’s return is the final step in the rebuilding of the Rangers’ rotation. A year ago at this time, Darvish and Martin Perez were rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Derek Holland, who ultimately missed four months of last season, was out with a shoulder injury and Cole Hamels was still a member of the Phillies. Perez returned last June. Hamels arrived at the end of July. Holland returned in August. Now, Darvish has joined that trio and veteran stalwart Colby Lewis to complete a rotation the Rangers hope will lead them to another division title.
Already this season, without Darvish, the Rangers have compiled the lowest rotation ERA in the American League, a 3.53 mark that just edges the rival Blue Jays’ mark and belies their hitting-friendly home ballpark. However, there is a significant amount of correction due to the pitchers leading that charge. Hamels, Perez and Lewis are all currently sporting ERA+ figures between 131 and 141, but Hamels and Lewis have been homer-prone, the former allowing 1.7 home runs per nine innings. Hamels and Perez have had inflated walk rates, Perez walking 5.4 per nine. Lewis and Perez have had strikeout rates well below league average, with Lewis leading that duo with a paltry 6.3 K/9. According to fielding independent pitching, each of those three pitchers should have an ERA at least a run higher, and a run and a half higher in Hamels’ case.
Deserved Run Average is far kinder to Hamels, but still suggests that Lewis and particularly Perez have been pitching in a significant amount of luck. By that statistic—which attempts to determined how many runs (earned and unearned) per nine innings a pitcher “deserves” to have allowed after correcting for nearly every possible variable from ballpark and opposition to catcher, umpire and weather—Perez, who currently leads the team with a 3.13 ERA, has deserved to allow 4.86 runs per nine innings.
Add in the fact that Holland has been scuffling with a mere 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and the return of Darvish not only to the rotation but to his pre-surgery level of dominance appears all the more crucial for the Rangers in their pursuit of Seattle, which they trailed by a game and a half entering Saturday’s action. The timing of Darvish’s return could also be a key to that race, as the Rangers will play the Mariners six times in the first half of June, and each of Darvish’s next two starts should come against them. There are sure to be some bumps along the way as Darvish’s continues to reestablish himself and work deeper into games, but if his performance Saturday night was any indication, the team with the fourth-best record in the American League entering Saturday’s action just got its ace back.