Yu Darvish's cutter is the key to his bounceback season

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Wednesday April 26th, 2017

If all goes according to plan for the Rangers this season, Yu Darvish will make 30 starts for just the second time in his career. In fact, if just one thing goes according to plan in Arlington, the Rangers would likely choose Darvish taking 30-plus turns on the mound over anything else.

Darvish was mostly healthy to start his MLB career, making 29 starts in 2012 and 32 the next season. An elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery cost him the second half of the 2014 season, and all of 2015. Last year Darvish made just 17 starts, due largely to neck and shoulder injuries that intermittently plagued him all season. Now in his age-30 season, Darvish will likely have to deal with injury questions for the rest of his career. He’s answering them emphatically in his favor this season.

Darvish has made five starts in 2017, pitching to a 3.03 ERA, 3.80 FIP and 1.04 WHIP with 31 strikeouts against 13 walks in 32 2/3 innings. He has had two excellent outings, most recently against the Royals last weekend, when he allowed two runs on five hits in eight innings, striking out eight while walking just one. He also has a dominant outing against the Angels to his name, a start in which he twirled seven scoreless innings and fanned 10 batters.

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Velocity is especially important for a pitcher who has always lit up the radar gun, and who has endured multiple arm injuries. Darvish has checked that box this season as well. His four-seam fastball is averaging 94.4 mph, which matches where it was pre-Tommy John. His sinker and cutter velocity also check out, not only in individual terms but in the spread they have from his splitter and slider, respectively. Those pitches work in tandem (sinker-splitter, cutter-slider), and their effectiveness is largely dependent on a noticeable difference in velocity. Darvish has achieved that difference in his first five starts this season.

With that foundation set, we can move into the offerings within Darvish’s arsenal. The most interesting development there is his cutter usage. Darvish has thrown three fastballs—a four-seamer, sinker and cutter—with regularity. Typically, his usage rate on the three fastballs has followed that order, and last year he had the biggest spread of his career between his sinker and cutter usage, throwing the former 19.7% of the time and latter 10.2% of the time, according to Statcast. Darvish has flipped that breakdown this season.

Through five starts, Darvish’s cutter usage rate sits at 20.5%, his third-most frequently thrown pitch behind his four-seamer—which is all the way down to 32.7%—and slider. He has thrown the two-seamer 15.8% of the time, which still makes it a key offering in his repertoire, but that would be the pitch’s lowest usage rate since 2013.

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All told, Darvish has thrown 101 cutters this season, according to Statcast data. He has gotten 15 whiffs on the pitch, good for a whiff rate of 14.9%. Hitters have put 28 of those pitches in play, with seven going for hits. Two of those seven hits were home runs, and 12 of the 21 in-play outs Darvish has gotten with the cutter have been on balls with exit velocities of at least 92.8 mph. The pitch has been fine, but far from perfect.

Let’s take a look at a good cutter, and a bad cutter, from Darvish. The good one was a 3–2 offering to Khris Davis. Darvish battled back in this at bat, falling behind 3–0 before ultimately rallying to fan the Oakland slugger. This is one of two strike threes Darvish has notched with the cutter this season.

Everything about this is perfect. Jonathan Lucroy calls for the pitch down and on the outer third, and that’s exactly where Darvish puts it. His sequencing has made Davis susceptible to the cutter, and it’s easy to see from his swing that he identified this pitch as a four-seam fastball. As Davis goes to put bat to ball, the pitch reveals its true colors, darting down and away to produce the whiff. The tightness of the pitch, combined with a less dramatic break, shows that it is a cutter and not a slider, but that should also make obvious how well those two pitches can work together. A strong cutter-slider combo can have the same effect as a fastball-changeup pairing. The pitches look the same coming out of a pitcher’s hand, but one breaks much more and travels anywhere from seven (in the case of the cutter/slider) to 10 mph (for a fastball/changeup) slower. Given the filthiness of Darvish’s slider, it’s only natural that he should have a good cutter to go with it.

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The bad cutter is just as ugly as the good one is nasty. Robinson Chirinos calls for this one high and tight to Mike Moustakas. Darvish gets the pitch inside, but down around the belt rather than up at the letters. The pitch’s relative lack of bite turns it into an inviting pitch in this location, a hanger on the inner third in a spot most left-handed batters love. Moustakas turns on it and sends it into the seats down the rightfield line.

That Darvish only has two strikeouts with the cutter might seem like an indictment of the pitch, but it isn’t. He doesn’t use it much in two-strike counts, preferring to go to the pitch early in the count to get ahead of hitters. From there, he turns to his best out pitches, his four-seam fastball, slider and curveball. Darvish has thrown one of those three pitches on 74.5% of his two-strike offerings this season.

With some help from Trevor Plouffe, we can see how Darvish uses the cutter both to get ahead in the count and to set up a hitter for one of his premier out pitches. Darvish jumped ahead with a four-seam fastball to start the at bat. On 0–1, he comes back with a cutter. It’s spotted nicely on the outside corner, and Plouffe takes it for strike two.

Notice that the pitch comes in at 89 mph. Your eyes might tell you slider, but the velocity tells the real story. Unless Darvish turned into Noah Syndergaard overnight, this pitch is a cutter. Plouffe has now seen a 94 mph four-seamer and 89 mph cutter from Darvish. The first one was straight, and the second one had some break down and away. Darvish now has Plouffe set up for the slider, which mirrors the movement of the cutter, but at a speed of 81 mph. Plouffe is incapable of keeping his hands back, which is not a commentary on him, but more on what a lethal combination Darvish has with his cutter and slider.

Darvish’s cutter is never going to be his best pitch, but it’s clear that it’s going to be a more important weapon in his arsenal than ever before. Not only could it lessen the strain on his elbow by reducing the number of 94-95 mph four-seamers he throws, it could make his already filthy slider that much harder for hitters to identify.

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