Gerry Fraley recently penned an article for the Dallas Morning News that focused a lot on Darvish's struggles leading into the All-Star Break, and called into question his status as an 'ace.' I have no interest in descending into a debate on whether Darvish is an ace or not. It's obvious to me that he is. If it's not obvious to you, I'm probably not going to change your mind, and you're not going to change mine, and we can go about our merry way content with our convictions.
However, Fraley did use a couple of interesting quotes from Darvish in that piece. In particular, while speaking through an interpreter, Darvish said 'I have higher goals. The results in the first half, I think I was lucky.'
Those results Darvish is referring to include a 2.97 ERA (20th in baseball among qualified starters), 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings (best in baseball among qualified starters), and 3.5 WAR according to Fangraphs, fourth-highest among all pitchers.
So overall, in the first half Darvish was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He claims he was lucky. Fraley claims that in his last five starts before the All-Star Break, that luck ran out.
So is Yu Darvish lucky, or as good as his numbers say he is?
One of the first statistics we think of when think of luck in baseball is batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In 2014, the league average BABIP has been .298 in the American League. Obviously, BABIP fluctuates player-to-player, sometimes with good reason (as is the case with Colby Lewis who simply gets hit hard), and sometimes due to bad luck.
In the first half, Darvish's BABIP was .323. In those five starts before the All-Star Break in which Darvish was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA, Darvish's BABIP inflated to .378. BABIP would suggest that instead of being lucky this year, Darvish has been the opposite, and instead of luck running out before the All-Star Break, Darvish only suffered from becoming increasingly unlucky.
BABIP is interesting by itself, but it shouldn't stand by itself, either. Darvish's .323 BABIP in the first half is not only higher than the league average but also higher than the average for his career, though with reason. Darvish is in fact being hit harder this year than he has previously in his career. Opponents have a 24 percent line drive rate off of Darvish in 2014, after being at 21 and 22 percent in 2013 and 2012, respectively. That uptick in line drives typically converts to a few points of BABIP as well, as line drives are more likely to find holes.
One of the reasons Darvish is being hit harder more often is a shift in how he uses his pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, Darvish threw his slider 30 percent of the time in 2013, and is only throwing it 14 percent of the time in 2014. Conversely, Darvish is throwing 11 percent more four-seam fastballs in 2014 over last year. Considering the slider is Darvish's best pitch, the reduced number he has thrown in 2014 is a reason that opponents are making more solid contact.
Another area where Darvish has not been lucky, and perhaps has been unlucky, is the defense behind him. Injuries and age have not only negatively impacted the Rangers' offensive production, but their defensive prowess as well. In 2013, Texas' defense ranked second in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved. This year, they're in 12th place. Darvish has felt the impact of a less-trustworthy defense, as his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is better than his ERA, which wasn't the case in 2013.
Darvish's career-best FIP of 2.77 in 2014 is a result of him maintaining an 11.4 K/9 rate (11.2 K/9 career average), decreasing his walk totals (3.1 BB/9 versus 3.6 BB/9 career average), and limiting home runs to 0.7 HR/9 (0.9 HR/9 career average).
When it comes to what Darvish can control (strikeouts, walks, and home runs), he is having the best year of his career.
Where Darvish may say he has been lucky is in his home run rate. For his career, Darvish has induced 41 percent ground balls. But in 2014, only 34 percent of balls in play have been hit on the ground against Darvish. For all of those additional balls hit in the air, Darvish isn't allowing more home runs thanks to an 8 percent HR/FB ratio, below his 11 percent career average.
One area where luck has little or no impact is in Darvish's strikeout rate. As stated previously, Darvish is leading all pitchers in strikeout rate. And you may have also noted that he is doing this while throwing significantly fewer sliders. In fact, he is missing fewer bats on two strikes as well. In 2012, 87 percent of Darvish's strikeouts were swinging strikeouts. Now, in 2014, only 77 percent of his strikeouts are swinging strikeouts. And yet, despite using his best pitch less often and missing fewer bats, he is still fooling hitters and racking up strikeouts at unprecedented rates.
Some say that it is better to be lucky than good. In baseball, I'm not sure that's the case, even if the phrase was coined by 1930s pitcher Lefty Gomez. Baseball is a long sport and being lucky isn't a long-term recipe for success. Yu Darvish has lasted two-and-a-half seasons in Major League Baseball and still sits among the cream of the crop of starting pitchers today. As he showed in 6.2 innings of one-run ball and 12 strikeouts in his first outing back from the All-Star Break, he is as dominant as any, and luck has little to do with that.