Darvish runner-up for NL Cy Young Award

November 12th, 2020

CHICAGO -- There is a mutual respect between and Trevor Bauer. They once shared an agent, creating an avenue for a kind of professional friendship that has included sharing ideas and training methods.

Bauer and Darvish squared off twice during the 2020 season, giving them a chance to take all those conversations to the mound. They each came out on top once, offered compliments in postgame Zoom sessions and soon found themselves in a battle for the National League Cy Young Award.

"On this planet, I believe he's the best pitcher," Darvish said after they locked horns on Sept. 9.

On Wednesday night, the Baseball Writers' Association of America voted Bauer as the best pitcher in the NL for his work with the Reds, recognizing him the Cy Young Award winner. Darvish also turned in a campaign worthy of that honor, but the Cubs’ ace finished as the runner-up.

Darvish earned three first-place votes and finished with 123 points in the balloting, while Bauer netted 27 of the 30 first-place votes and won the accolade with 201 points. Mets ace Jacob deGrom finished third in voting. Cubs righty picked up a pair of fifth-place votes to tie for ninth.

"I can't say enough about Yu," Cubs manager David Ross said at the end of the season. "He put us in this position to be in the postseason -- him and Kyle -- and just had a phenomenal year. It was fun to be his manager and watch him pitch every fifth day. He's a true professional. I'm very proud of the year he had."

When the time came to name a Game 1 starter for the NL Wild Card Series against the Marlins, Ross went with Hendricks because of a difference in days off for the pitchers. Hendricks, who was Chicago's Opening Day starter, was honored to take the ball to start October, but the veteran righty felt Darvish would have been the choice under different circumstances.

"We all know what Yu's done this year. He's our ace. He's the guy," Hendricks said at the time. "If this was a one-game playoff kind of thing, he would be the guy, obviously."

In 2020, Darvish won eight of his 12 starts and posted a 2.01 ERA to go along with 93 strikeouts and 14 walks in 76 innings. The right-hander's 3.0 WAR (per Fangraphs), 2.23 fielding independent pitching and 2.30 win probability added ranked second in the Majors to only Cleveland's Shane Bieber, the American League Cy Young Award winner.

From July 31 to Sept. 4, Darvish allowed no more than one run in seven consecutive winning decisions. It was the first streak of its kind in the Majors since 2014, when Clayton Kershaw achieved the feat, and the first for the Cubs since Ed Reulbach did so in 1906.

"You just see a poise about him out there," Ross said. "He's in total control with so many different pitches. That's what is hard for me to grasp as an ex-catcher, is the command of so many different pitches and speeds at which he throws them."

Darvish's ascension to ace of the Cubs was remarkable and can be traced back to the 2019 campaign.

Going into the second half of 2019, Darvish had a 4.99 ERA and an 11.7% walk rate in 137 innings (26 starts) since putting on a Cubs uniform. He dealt with injuries in '18 and then extreme command woes early on in '19. Darvish then turned a corner dramatically after the All-Star break last year.

"A lot's been written, a lot's been said about it, a lot of people were involved," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in September. "But, ultimately, Yu Darvish is the one who deserves the credit. I think he got sick and tired of not being at his best and letting people down."

Dating back to the second half of last year, Darvish has fashioned a 2.40 ERA with 211 strikeouts against 21 walks in 157 2/3 innings (25 starts). He has compiled 5.4 WAR (per Fangraphs) and has a 34.6% strikeout rate and 3.4% walk rate.

Darvish has credited pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for allowing him to work at a more deliberate pace. The righty was also given more freedom to experiment with and implement different pitches. He added a hard cutter and knuckle-curve in 2019 and was throwing at least 10 pitch variations in '20.

After an outing against the Cardinals on Sept. 4, when Darvish was perfect through five innings in an overpowering effort, he said his comfort in so many pitches made 2020 easier to navigate. As an example, Darvish said his four-seamer was an issue in that start.

"But I have a lot of cutters -- three or four kinds of cutters," Darvish explained, "two kinds of sliders or three kinds of curveballs. So I can replace the four-seam."

That confidence came from the increased comfort Darvish has felt over the past two seasons.

Darvish has built a strong rapport and relationship with his personal catcher, . The pitcher has continued to evolve and focus on his strengths in his work behind the scenes with Hottovy. Darvish has embraced his teammates, who began a ritual of letting him take the field first in the games he started in 2020.

Ross quipped that those starts became known as "Win Day" for the Cubs.

Darvish also has continued to garner praise and admiration from around the game, including from Bauer.

"I like Yu a lot. I study him. I’ve studied him a long time," Bauer said in August. "He's one of my favorite guys to watch."