DALLAS - Let’s start here: I love Yu Darvish like my non-existent Japanese ace son.
When folks last year said that Darvish was selfish, didn’t give a feces, and slandered him in other ways, I smacked them with numbers and facts. You wouldn’t think the second best starting pitcher in Rangers history (before you ask Nolan Ryan is 1st) needs defending.
Darvish has been a treasure and a value for Texas, and his tenure won’t be appreciated until he no longer puts on the uniform whenever that time is.
I say all this, dear reader, so you’ll understand how strange and dirty it feels that I’m about to write the following sentence.
Texas might be wise in replacing Darvish with Gerrit Cole.
Imagine a pause on my end as I breathe deeply into my hands before returning them to my keyboard. That happened.
This possibility emerged after Bill Brinks, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote a big piece talking about the Pirates’ potential trades of Cole and star outfielder Andrew McCutchen. In it, Brinks floats the idea of a fit specifically with Texas while citing the costs of both players being sky high.
A brief McCutchen diatribe: If you had told me a couple of years ago Texas might get McCutchen, I’d have signed away any number of unborn children. Then 2016 happened, where McCutchen fell hard from his MVP caliber form.
He’s rebounded some this year, but with only a team option left on his deal at over $14 million he doesn’t fit this incarnation of the team. Texas isn’t in the market for an expensive rental, even if he’d become the best outfielder on the roster. He’d be perfect if this team was leading the division.
That is not the case.
In regards to Cole, there’s a lot in the way of potential. He’s only 26, controllable through 2020, and represents a stabilizing force in a rotation that has been held together by the arcane magic of Austin Bibens-Dirkx and assorted other spot starters. A young, controllable starter is worth his weight in gold, so it only makes sense a team like Texas who builds for now and later would kick the tires.
In doing research on Cole, I perused a few different sites. I ended up at Baseball Reference, where they have a fun tool called Similarity Scores. Here’s a long form explainer if you’re into such a thing, but it’s a rating system created by Bill James used to compare players by position.
It works like this: Every combination of players starts at 1000 as their score. The score decreases on points based on various criteria listed in the link above. The closer to 1000 the score is, the more similar the players are.
Imagine my surprise that when I checked the Similarity Scores for Cole, his top overall comparison was Yu Darvish with a 972 score.
Need an idea of how crazy it is? I asked some of the other smart baseball people I work with who they thought Cole would be most similar to. They returned guesses of Bobby Witt, John Burkett, and Martin Perez.
So the scores say Darvish and Cole are close. What do the numbers say?
The timeframe for this is 2013 on, which is worth noting since Yu debuted a year before posting a 4.5 WAR season which won’t be reflected in this analysis. Cole debuted in 2013, so I decided to start there since it made more sense.
In that time frame Cole has pitched around 120 more innings than Yu, not surprising since Yu suffered injuries that cost him time during that span. Cole out WAR’d him during that time, though not by much 13.5 to 13. Darvish is a way better strikeout pitcher, averaging three more strikeouts per nine than Cole. Cole walks fewer while giving up fewer home runs than Darvish, while Darvish reigns supreme in ERA and xFIP.
One of the big things separating the two are ground and fly balls. Cole generates more ground balls than Darvish (47.7% to 39.7%), while limiting fly balls better (29.8% to 37.8%). Cole induces more contact, about seven percent more, while more first pitch strikes than Darvish but fewer swinging strikes.
All of this shows a simple divide. Darvish is a strikeout pitcher, with phenomenal stuff and the control issues that come with that. Cole has good stuff, not as good as Darvish’s, but is more of a ground ball pitcher relying on fielders and weak contact to get outs.
This is where we wade into subjective waters.
On its face, replacing Darvish with Cole seems silly. In a vacuum, the ability to take the pitcher with better stuff who can generate outs on his own would be more valuable than Cole’s reliance on others. It only makes sense; the consensus best pitchers in baseball have blistering velocity and mind boggling movement.
Except, someone with Cole’s skillset is proving you can succeed without being a strikeout artist.
Dallas Keuchel is the epitome of success for ground ball pitchers. He’s won a Cy Young by keeping the ball on the ground. In the same timeframe we’ve used for Cole and Darvish, Keuchel has fewer K/9 than Cole while walking slightly more and giving up slightly more homers.
Of course, Keuchel’s ground ball rate is way higher than Cole’s (60.5% to 47.7%). You can’t argue the value numbers; out of the three pitchers it’s Keuchel with the highest WAR number at 15.6.
Keuchel shows that with a competent infield and a commitment to ground balls, you can be an untraditional ace. In Texas Cole would have Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor, and a rotating first baseman. The left side of that infield alone is more than strong enough to justify his tactics.
Cole would also represent an overall savings for a team that does like to cry broke at times. Cole is under team control through 2020, so you’d only need to pay his arbitration number until then. Darvish is a free agent this year, and will command the price of a high quality pitcher. $150 million is almost a given, and more than that wouldn’t be shocking. With Shin-Soo Choo, half of Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, and other large deals on the books this would appeal to the front office on a monetary level.
Where this would hurt Texas is in the prospect pocketbook. Brink points out that Leody Taveras and Yohander Mendez would be the two most interesting to Pittsburgh. For Cole, you’re likely picking one and building around him. If given the choice, I’m protecting Leody in a bomb shelter at all costs.
A package like Mendez, Brett Martin, and another high level guy such as Anderson Tejada or Yanio Perez would entice the Pirates. Regardless of the specific prospects, it’d be a guaranteed heavy cost in a system that doesn’t have much more to give at the moment.
Cole would have a big supporter in the form of Rangers manager Jeff Banister. Banister was the bench coach in Pittsburgh when Cole debuted, and was involved with their minor league system before his debut. Few coaches would have a better feel on Cole than Banister, so bringing him to Texas would likely make the skipper happy while giving him a high quality player he can trust. We’ve seen this in small ways with Jason Grilli and Ernesto Frieri.
This next point is going to make people unhappy. It must be addressed though.
There’s an undercurrent of dislike about Darvish from fans and media alike. As I mentioned above his dedication to the team has been doubted, his overall quality has been questioned, and there’s a lot of folks who just do not like Yu Darvish.
Some of it comes from expectations that people perceive he hasn’t met, even though he has. Some of it probably comes from people wanting a different kind of high end pitcher. A Nolan Ryan, Cole Hamels, Kevin Brown type if you will. Texas fans have an idea of what they want their ace to be, and Darvish isn’t that. Which also isn’t Darvish’s problem, but often the misconceptions and biases of others tend to only hurt the victimized.
So it seems that no matter how great Darvish is, he will always have detractors for reasons that already exist or will be invented by people whose first instinct is to tear him down. Maybe it’s time to go a different direction with your frontline starters. A more cost efficient, “relatable” option might be more in line with what the organization and fanbase wants.
Though maybe, just maybe Darvish should leave if for no other reason than to show folks what it looks like when he’s not there.
As the old song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. With Texas in the process of paving over baseball paradise in the form of Globe Life Park, likely to replace it with a parking lot, it might just be time for all involved to part friends.
It could work out. Cole could don the Ranger red and dominate, while Yu goes elsewhere on his baseball journey. I would hope that no matter what happens, the people who decried Darvish while he was here cried a little when he left. He has been great for this club, and has the numbers to back it up.
Sometimes though, you need a change.
This could be the change all parties need.
What do you think? Should the Rangers opt for Cole for a post-Yu solution? Share your thoughts with Samuel on Twitter @thesamuelhale.
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