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The first domino finally dropped in what has been an abnormally slow off-season for free-agent signings, as Yu Darvish agreed to a six-year, $126 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

The top free agent starting pitcher this offseason, Darvish will join Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood in a potent Cubs rotation. Pitching in the National League with the Dodgers last year, Darvish posted a 3.44 ERA and 1.148 WHIP — both lower than his marks pitching for the Rangers. He also began striking out batters at a higher rate, going from 9.7 K/9 over 22 starts with the Rangers to 11.1 in nine starts with the Dodgers.

Across the board, Darvish put up better numbers playing in the National League last season after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but his World Series performance against the Astros is something many would like to forget. Now in the National League for a full season, can Darvish match or best his numbers from 2013 when he finished second in the American League Cy Young race?

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Yu Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Darvish already saw some benefit from switching leagues last season, as he moved from the high-scoring AL West division (4.81 runs per game — most in MLB) to the low-scoring NL West (4.50 runs per game — fewest in MLB). He will continue to reap those benefits in the NL Central this year, as the Cubs' division rivals combined to average 4.53 runs per game in 2017.

A move to the NL Central should also lead to an increase in his strikeout rate. In 2017, NL Central batters (excluding the Cubs) struck out at a rate of 22.95 percent — higher than NL West batters (excluding the Dodgers) who struck out at a 22.73 percent rate and AL West batters (excluding the Rangers) who had a 20.45 percent strikeout rate.

Another positive indicator that Darvish could have a big year in strikeouts this season is his increased usage of his slider and cutter in 2017. During his career-best 2013 season, Darvish relied on his fastball and slider fairly evenly and threw his cutter about half as often as his fastball. In 2014 and 2016 though, he threw primarily fastballs — likely due to the elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2015 and the recovery process afterwards.

Year Fastball % Cutter % Slider %
2013 30.3 15.9 30.7
2014/2016 41.1 10.3 17.2
2017 35.2 15.4 24.6

During those two seasons, while he still put up good numbers he wasn't able to quite match his 2013 performance. Last season saw his pitch percentages return to levels similar to 2013, and while his overall season numbers more closely matched his rookie season numbers it is still a sign that 2018 could see him as a favorite for the NL strikeout title.

One slight concern for fantasy owners looking at drafting Darvish though is his abysmal World Series performance. A Sports Illustrated article quoted an anonymous Astros player as saying Darvish was tipping his pitches to batters, which led to his 21.60 ERA, 3.30 WHIP and zero strikeouts over 3.1 innings pitched in two starts. This was not the first time in his MLB career that Darvish has reportedly struggled with tipping his pitches, but it was definitely the most high profile occurrence coming at a critical point in the season. So while it was only two games and it is highly unlikely to be indicative of a future trend for him, fantasy owners will be paying close attention to how Darvish pitches this spring.

So Darvish will be in a weaker offensive league in 2018, in a division where opponents strike out at a high rate and signs are pointing to him potentially returning to his 2013 form. With all that said, where does that put him among starting pitchers in fantasy?

Our mixed-league rankings had him as the No. 13 starting pitcher while he was still a free agent, with a draft target range around the end of the fifth round or beginning of the sixth. Of the various teams that were linked to him throughout the off-season, the Cubs are the team that would potentially give the biggest boost to his fantasy value. Pitching in the NL Central, Darvish should be a low-end top-10 starting pitcher this year with the (albeit slim) chance to finish the year in the top-five. As such, fantasy owners should look to grab him starting around the middle of the fourth round, or even the end of the third if looking to load up on pitching early.


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