Yu Darvish & Historic Strikeout Levels

Yu Darvish may have compiled the least-heralded sub-3.00 ERA season in recent memory. Unfortunately, most of that stems from a lackluster 13-9 record, as his run support was putrid through certain stretches. To illustrate that point, in 17 of his starts, the Rangers scored three or fewer runs, which will certainly make it difficult to become a 20-game winner. Only logging 13 wins caused most of America to forget about Darvish’s stellar season, and it even got to the point that area sportswriters questioned his ability to hold leads late in games.

Regardless of the lack of attention lavished on the right-hander, fantasy owners certainly took notice. Zach Sanders had him ranked as the fourth-best starter in the league, while ESPN tabbed him as the five-best starter. In short, he anchored fantasy rotations and was a bona fide stud in every style of league.

Darvish took a significant step forward in 2013 due to BABIP and his strand rate. They combined to see his ERA drop from 3.90 in 2012 to 2.83 this past season, but the core components of his performance suggest his overall effectiveness was similar. His FIP remained almost identical, while he traded a few more home runs for fewer walks and more strikeouts.

His home run rate jumped from 0.66 HR/9 in 2012 to 1.12 HR/9 this past season. His HR/FB certainly changed for the worse, but it appears the larger discussion point should surround his decreased ground-ball rate. It decreased roughly five percent, and while that’s not a significant downturn, it seems at least interesting to note his home run rate increased in tandem with more fly balls.

The higher fly ball rate appears to center around his slider, and perhaps not coincidentally, he featured his slider much more heavily this season.

Pitch ’12 GB% ’13 GB% Diff
FA 32.4% 38.1% +5.7%
SL 50.5% 38.2% -12.3%
FC 55.1% 50.5% -4.6%

As you can see, the change in his fastball and cutter roughly cancel each other out. The slider, however, is the biggest mover in the negative sense, and as mentioned above, his slider usage escalated from 14.3% in 2012 t 31.6% in 2013. Thus, one would certainly expect his overall ground ball rate to decrease if his slider started to yield fewer grounders and he featured it much more often. That only makes sense. Though, to be fair, the ISO on his slider moved down 15 points from .092 to .077, so it wouldn’t be fair to assert his increased home run rate is due to his increased slider usage. Instead, the numbers suggest his fastball and cutter suffered the largest power beatings.

So I’m not ready to suggest Darvish will necessarily surrender more home runs if he continues to rely heavily on his slider. The data doesn’t seem to suggest that. However, it will be interesting to investigate how his fastball and cutter perform in 2014, as that will likely serve as a better harbinger for future home run performance.

Moving away from the home run discussion, though, Yu Darvish is a fantasy baseball stalwart due to his massive strikeout numbers. In fact, his 32.9% strikeout percentage in 2013 ranks ninth in the history of baseball.

Rank Season Player Team K%
1 1999 Pedro Martinez Red Sox 37.5%
2 2001 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 36.7%
3 2000 Pedro Martinez Red Sox 34.8%
4 2000 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 34.7%
5 1997 Randy Johnson Mariners 34.2%
6 1995 Randy Johnson Mariners 34.0%
7 1999 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 33.7%
8 1998 Kerry Wood Cubs 33.3%
9 2013 Yu Darvish Rangers 32.9%
10 1998 Randy Johnson M’s/Astros 32.5%
11 2002 Randy Johnson Diamondbacks 32.3%
12 1997 Pedro Martinez Expos 32.2%

Darvish joins Kerry Wood as the only pitchers not named Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson on the list of top-12 strikeout percentages in history. That’s quite the list, and it speaks to the dominance of Yu Darvish on the mound last season, regardless of his meager win totals. If he continues to feature his slider more heavily in 2014, it’s reasonable to expect his strikeout numbers to remain near the same level, which is an historic level.

The 27-year-old right-hander is one of my favorite pitchers heading into the 2014 season because although he was dominant in fantasy leagues last year, he legitimately possesses the ability to take another step forward. He should be in the conversation for 16-to-20 wins, and if the home run rate drops back to expected levels, he could truly be special. After all, his Oliver projections have him at a 2.92 ERA with 16 wins and a 1.11 WHIP. That’s even with projecting a decrease in strikeouts, which may not happen if he leans on his slider once again.

Needless to say, I’m all in on Yu Darvish. He will be one of the very few starting pitchers I’ll consider drafting in round two or three next spring, and though injury caveats always exist for pitchers, I won’t feel too nervous about pushing in all my chips on the strikeout machine.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

4 Responses to “Yu Darvish & Historic Strikeout Levels”

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  1. Ruki Motomiya says:

    What this article shows is…Randy Johnson is the ideal fantasy pitcher and him + Pedro were K-razy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Cybo says:

    In a keeper league and you can only keep one are you keeping Yu or King Felix? I’ve been debating this in my mind for a couple months now.

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  3. Mike says:

    The takeaway from this article is…Randy fucking Johnson.

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