Tale of the tape: Darvish vs. Arrieta

Which top free-agent starter would provide most bang for buck?

January 16th, 2018

's availability in the trade market was a distraction for several teams that might otherwise have been more thoroughly immersed in free agency, and it remains to be seen if discussions about Chris Archer or other potential trade chips get to as serious a stage.
But Cole's move from Pittsburgh to Houston invites optimism that we'll finally begin to get some clarity in free agency. Though there are a lot of names out there, and represent the class of this class, and something could come to fruition soon with teams that are open to the idea of springing for a front-line-type starter -- a list that includes but is likely not limited to the Cubs, Yankees, Brewers, Twins, Dodgers and Rangers.
So here's a tale of the tape comparing Darvish and Arrieta, as teams discuss and decide which one to prioritize.
Darvish: Having achieved veritable rock-star status in his native Japan, Darvish came to the United States via the posting system at age 25. And though he's not won a Cy Young Award and he was sidetracked by a right elbow injury at one point, Darvish has largely lived up to the hype.
Arrieta: This intense competitor and disciplined dieter ("I eat plants, I eat lean meats," Arrieta said when people tried to accuse him of taking PEDs amid a late bloom) nearly pitched his way out of the big leagues in Baltimore before a change of scenery and pitch selection helped him achieve superstardom in Chicago
Darvish: 31
Arrieta: 32
Career stats
Darvish: 131 starts, 832 1/3 innings, 3.42 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, 3.33 K/BB ratio, 19.3 bWAR
Arrieta: 197 games, 1,161 innings, 3.57 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 1.17 WHIP, 2.66 K/BB ratio, 20.3 bWAR

2017 stats
Darvish: 31 starts, 186 2/3 innings, 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 3.6 K/BB ratio, 3.9 bWAR
Arrieta: 30 starts, 168 1/3 innings, 3.53 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.22 WHIP, 2.96 K/BB ratio, 1.9 bWAR
2018 Steamer projection
Darvish: 29 starts, 179 innings, 3.82 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, 3.56 K/BB ratio, 3.6 WAR
Arrieta: 29 starts, 177 innings, 4.20 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 2.71 K/BB ratio, 2.7 WAR

Darvish: Tommy John surgery cost Darvish all of the 2015 season and part of '16. Since coming to MLB from Japan in '12, he has logged just one 200-inning season (209 2/3 innings in '13). However, Darvish did make 31 starts between the Rangers and Dodgers last year.
Arrieta: Though a right hamstring strain sidelined him late last year, Arrieta has never had a major arm injury, which of course stands in stark contrast to Darvish's situation. Has made at least 30 starts each of the past three seasons.
Darvish: Darvish has a deep repertoire that includes a four-seamer (94.3 mph average in 2017), slider, sinker, cutter, curve, splitter and changeup. With the Dodgers late last season, he began having success throwing his fastball less frequently and his cutter more. Darvish also lowered his arm slot slightly.
Arrieta: With a deceptive delivery, Arrieta throws a sinker, four-seamer, curve, changeup and slider-cutter. A de-emphasis on the four-seam usage and increase in sinker percentage helped spark his 2015 rise to stardom.
Postseason pedigree
Darvish: Because Darvish lost his only two postseason starts with the Rangers and was lit up by the Astros in the World Series (eight runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings), he has a reputation as a pitcher you might not be able to trust on the big stage. But keep in mind he did limit the D-backs and Cubs to a pair of runs over 11 1/3 innings in his first two playoff starts last year, and Sports Illustrated quoted an anonymous Astros hitter as saying Darvish was tipping his pitches in the Fall Classic.
Arrieta: With a masterful performance in the 2015 National League Wild Card Game and a 2.38 ERA in two World Series starts, Arrieta has risen to the October occasion in the recent past. Overall, he is 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 52 2/3 innings over nine starts.
Best selling points
Darvish: Beyond the fun you can have with the Yu puns, Darvish's stuff is every bit as sharp as it was pre-surgery, his strikeout rate (11 per nine for his career and 10.1 last season) is elite, and he's coming off a season in which he was worth nearly four Wins Above Replacement, per baseball-reference.com -- a difference-maker at a time when reliable starting arms are difficult to come by.
Arrieta: Because of the up-and-down nature of his early career, there's an argument that Arrieta's arm is "younger" than his age would indicate. He's thrown 458 2/3 fewer professional innings than Darvish has -- more than two full seasons' worth of action. Arrieta appeared on NL Cy Young Award ballots in three of the past four seasons, and his 2015 win featured a historic second half (12-1 record, 0.75 ERA in 15 starts).
Biggest red flags
Darvish: Darvish not only had Tommy John surgery, but he's also looking at 2,172 2/3 professional innings (between Japan and the States) in his rearview mirror -- a lot of wear and tear. And the big-game reputation will, rightly or wrongly, be a storyline wherever he signs.
Arrieta: Forget the obvious assertion that Arrieta won't repeat what he did in 2015, but it's nonetheless notable that he averaged 6.94 innings per start in '15 and 5.99 from 2016-17, all while seeing a 2.5-mph drop in his average fastball velocity in that span. His walks per nine went from 1.9 in '15 to 3.2 over '16-'17. There are strategic reasons why a Cubs team that has gone deep into the playoffs three straight years would want to protect its arms (and the game is evolving toward quicker hooks, anyway), but despite the unmistakable effort Arrieta puts into his diet and his training, you might not be getting quite the workhorse or the sharp command we saw a few years back.

Bottom line
Darvish: Darvish might never have a transcendent, award-winning season like Arrieta once had, but if you want an imposing presence that can elevate the top end of a rotation, Yu got it.
Arrieta: Arrieta is expected to command a lower total contract figure than Darvish, and he therefore might provide more value if -- and only if -- he can sort through his command issues of 2017.
One man's conclusion
Because of the repertoire tweaks first instituted in L.A. that can make his still-elite-level stuff more consistently effective, Darvish has the higher upside of the two moving forward, even with the red flags associated with his medical history. He's the guy you want your favorite team to sign.