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Yu Darvish: 2022 Fantasy Baseball Bust?

Yu Darvish - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

Once among the most feared strikeout pitchers in the game, the cracks have finally started to show on Darvish, who is coming off his worst full season in the majors. He put up an uncharacteristic 4.22 ERA, served up 1.52 HR/9 despite pitching for San Diego, and his 29.2% strikeout rate was his lowest since 2018.

Add in the fact that Darvish will turn 36 midway through the season, and fantasy managers are rightfully worried about what the future holds for Darvish. Few would argue that Darvish is still an SP1, but the extent of his potential downside may be understated, as Darvish appears headed towards a cliff.

Let's examine Darvish in detail to determine whether he might be a full-blown bust in fantasy baseball this year.

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Health Concerns

Even when not considering age, one can’t help but be worried about Darvish’s health. He did make 30 starts last season, but averaged a paltry 5.5 innings per start, hardly what we’d like to see from an established veteran. We expect San Diego to treat known injured pitchers like Dinelson Lamet with kid gloves, as do we expect short leashes on prospects like Ryan Weathers or MacKenzie Gore should they get the call, but not Darvish.

Not only is Darvish being paid handsomely for his services, but the Padres acquired him to be an innings-eating ace. Yet they either don’t trust him to pitch deep into games, or he’s been unable to make it to the sixth routinely. That coupled with Darvish’s extensive injury history (he’s had Tommy John surgery twice and had three IL stints last season) sows doubt that he can be a dependable workhorse. 30 starts might be the absolute ceiling for Darvish, which makes him hard to rely on as a top-line starter.

 

Lack of (Sticky) Stuff

Okay, so maybe Darvish isn’t a volume guy anymore. He’s contributed high-quality innings throughout his career, and perhaps he can continue to produce the same quality, just less of it. It would be much easier to buy into a low-volume, high-quality version of Darvish had he not gotten obliterated by opposing hitters following MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances. It would be hard to identify a notable pitcher that suffered a bigger downturn in production following the crackdown than Yu Darvish, who put up a 5.90 ERA,  4.57 FIP, and 2.1 HR/9 in 16 games from June 21 onward, when the new rules were implemented.

The average spin rate on Darvish’s three primary pitches — cutter, four-seamer, and slider — curiously cratered around late June and July. Below are three graphs showing the changes to each pitch.

The spin rate recovered a bit later into the season, but Darvish’s performance did not, as he sputtered to the end of the season with an ERA north of six in each of the three final months.

As if the spin rate decline wasn’t bad enough, Darvish also lost quite a bit of velocity on his heater, with a 1.5 MPH drop in four-seam fastball velocity from 2020 to 2021. The loss in velocity is more likely related to physical decline than foreign substances, which makes it all the more concerning for the 35-year-old who has logged nearly 1300 MLB innings over the course of his career. A silver lining for Darvish might be that his 94.6 MPH average fastball velocity from last season was still around his career mark, which is an indicator that his fantastic 2020 campaign was a non-repeatable outlier.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Darvish’s 2021 season was the complete lack of effectiveness on his famous cutter. Darvish is a cutter-first pitcher, using it more frequently than any other pitch, yet opponents clobbered the pitch for a .340 AVG and .624 SLG last year. The pitch’s spin rate remained consistent, but Darvish lost two inches of vertical break and lost 0.3 inches on his extension, indicating that his mechanics may have been off last year. Mechanics are fixable, and may result in Darvish regaining some break, but the cutter simply wasn’t the reliable offering it once had been for Darvish; it was the source of his troubles last year.

With a less effective cutter Darvish will need to rely heavily on a declining fastball or some of his other, ancillary pitches, which is not the type of transition we like to see at this stage of someone’s career. Usually, veterans move away from their heaters in favor of cutters and other movement-based pitches as their top-end velocity declines. We’ve already established a velocity decline for Darvish, and we don’t want him relying too much on his fastball. His already above-average velocity means he’s still throwing decent heat, but a fastball-heavy approach would be less than ideal for Darvish.

 

Conclusion

Altogether, Darvish appears to be a pitcher on the decline and relying on him to be anything more than an injury-prone number three is a dangerous proposition in 2022. Darvish is going around pick 99 in NFBC ADP (as of 2/25/22), and for a similar price, one could take a youngster like Trevor Rogers or Alek Manoah. I’d sooner take a chance on rising stars than a fading ace around the pick-100 mark. We know Darvish will spend time on the injured list, and the physical decline is enough to scare me away unless he falls from his current price.



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