Yu Darvish: For its own sake

Rangers starting pitcher and favorite player of mine, Yu Darvish, hit a home run a couple nights ago. It was the first of his career, and first for a Rangers’ pitcher since Bobby Witt in 1997 — the inception year of Interleague play.

(It doesn’t change my opinion that pitchers should definitely not be hitting, but it was pretty cool nonetheless.)

As an excuse to write about him, although Darvish didn’t have a very good start on Wednesday (6 IP, 3 ER, 5 K, 5 BB), this has been a pretty fantastic return for him having not pitched meaningful innings in about 22 months. I think even a guy like me, who frequents imposing aggressive expectations, can appreciate that Yu has at worst lived up to them.

As for his ratio and rate stats, Yu Darvish has been as good as ever. In 65 innings pitched:

ERA: 2.91
fWAR: +1.5
RA9-WAR: +1.6
K/BB: 81/19
K%/BB%: 30.3%/7.1%
HRs (allowed): 9
HR/FB%: 13.4%

His .288 BABIP allowed is around league average, and his 83.7% strand rate is high but not abnormally so for a strikeout pitcher like Darvish is. You expect the best pitchers to have slightly lower BABIPs, because better “stuff” generally equates to weaker contact allowed. In the same vein, you expect the best punch out artists to have slightly higher — in other words, better — strand rates, since the more hitters you strike out, the less balls are put in play, and, in turn, the fewer opportunities the opposing team have to push those base runners across.

The only thing you can remotely nitpick on Yu Darvish’s campaign is surrendering a few more homers than he would like. He’s served up 9 in 81 innings, or on average one every nine, which results in the higher than you’d probably like 13.4% home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB%). Small potatoes.

Even at that his strikeout ability hasn’t left him, which is really his bread and butter. And his control (represented by a 7.1% walk rate) is the best it’s ever been. None of his numbers scream “lucky,” or whatever, making Darvish the best option Texas has at starting pitcher down the stretch. Presuming the Rangers win the division and play in the ALDS, I still think they roll with Cole Hamels in Game One — under the veil of “battle-tested” or “proven postseason pitcher” — but it’s clear Darvish is the real Ace of the rotation at this point.

For a basic comparison, here are how Darvish and Hamels look next to each other in the rate stats I pay closest attention to:

Strikeout rate --
Hamels: 23.8%
Darvish: 30.3%

Walk rate --
Hamels: 8.7%
Darvish: 7.1%

HR/FB% --
Hamels: 13.3%
Darvish: 13.4%

In these, the three things a pitcher can theoretically control, Darvish is only marginally better at preventing walks and roughly even in home run percentage on fly balls.

The real difference between the two starters comes in the strikeout department. While Hamels punches out a respectable quarter of the batters he faces, Yu is closer to one-in-three. And while that doesn’t sound like a major difference, over the course of 200-300 hitters between now and the end of October, you are going to want fewer balls put in play.

Arguing against Hamels starting Game One is truly an exercise in pettiness, I’ll grant you. With a couple more years like the one he’s had in 2016, baseball writers will be talking about his Hall of Fame candidacy. But that’s a distraction from what’s really going on:

In a one-game scenario, I’m rolling with my best strikeout gun. Intangibles are cool and all, but I prefer safer bets. I like the guy who is one of the few starters in baseball with the ability to strike out 30% of the hitters he faces. The playoffs are all about home runs and strikeouts, and I’d rather take my chance on the guy who misses bats.

Looking further ahead

Darvish is set to become a free agent after next year, 2017. As such, assuming he and the Rangers don’t come to a longterm contract solution between now and then, it’s looking like 2017 is going to be the best chance — if not this one — to secure a World Series.

Beyond that, it’s going to be interesting. According to Cots Contracts, by 2018 the big money Texas is on the hook for belong to Cole Hamels ($23.5 million), Shin-Soo Choo ($20 million), Prince Fielder ($18 million*), Adrian Beltre ($18 million), and Elvis Andrus ($15.25 million).

Throw in the second of Derek Holland’s two options ($11.5 million), and the first of Martin Perez’s three option years ($6 million), and the financial commitment for 2018, as it stands right now, is $112.25 million.

*Despite owing Fielder $72 million between 2017-2020, the insurance policy Texas took out on him will pay $36 million, or $9 million per year. So the $112 million obligation actually looks a lot closer to $100 million. 

To put money into perspective, the Rangers opened 2016 with a $158 million payroll. Assuming it stays in that general neighborhood for the next two years — and to my understanding the organization has no plans to jack it up an additional $10-$15 million — that leaves Texas with about $60 million to spend. After maybe a dozen players at some stage of arbitration, as well as the likelihood of a Rougned Odor extension, the amount of discretionary spending is likely to be around $30 million.

The reason it isn’t likely that Darvish is around after next year, is that he is likely to command close to that, per annum, on his next contract. Because he’s an ace, and will be entering free agency at age-32, there is a strong probability he brings in as much money as most of the big dogs — like Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Max Scherzer — have hauled in the last couple seasons.

In two years, dollars will mean even less than they do now, so that goes into my thinking here as well. Even if Yu is viewed in a shade below that aforementioned troika, he will still be the most coveted fish in the free agent pool.

So the Rangers would have to decide on that: Do they (a) pocket the production Yu Darvish has generated on his original 6-year, $60 million deal, or (b) pay for his age 32-37 seasons at the price of $30 million AAV (for a total of 6 years and $180 million)?

Texas has quite a bit of money on the books as is. And while Prince Fielder for $9 million a year sounds a helluva lot better than $18 million per, we’re still talking about a (likely) lesser version of Shin-Soo Choo for $20 million AAV and a (likely) lesser version of Cole Hamels for $23.5 million.

While I say now that option (a) is more realistic, it goes without saying that Jon Daniels and the Rangers front office have the chops to surprise me. They pretty much do like every year now. Maybe they say to hell with it and figure $30 million is a pretty fair price for one of the five-best pitchers on the planet.

A lot will, of course, depend on how well (and healthy) the Rangers play (and are) over the next 13 months. That might as well be an eternity in baseball time, the one sport played without a clock.

With no offseason.

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