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How move to Cubs could make Darvish better

Hickey can help righty make most of elite spin rate by elevating four-seamer
March 13, 2018

Yu Darvish and the Cubs might be a perfect match. It goes beyond Darvish giving the reigning National League Central champs a front-line starter to replace Jacob Arrieta. Few pitchers have an arsenal like Darvish's, wide-ranging and live-wire; in that respect, he'd boost any club.But there's an area within Darvish's

Yu Darvish and the Cubs might be a perfect match. It goes beyond Darvish giving the reigning National League Central champs a front-line starter to replace Jacob Arrieta. Few pitchers have an arsenal like Darvish's, wide-ranging and live-wire; in that respect, he'd boost any club.
But there's an area within Darvish's repertoire where there could be untapped potential -- and if anyone can help him unlock it, it's probably Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach. Statcast™ suggests Darvish might be underutilizing a tool that was a hallmark of Hickey's tenure with the Rays: the high fastball.
With Tampa Bay, before reuniting with Joe Maddon in Chicago, Hickey instilled the high fastball as a foundational weapon for the Rays' pitching staff. Pitchers like Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly became heavy high-fastball users under his tutelage. But Hickey didn't have starting pitchers with fastballs like Darvish's.
Darvish's four-seamer not only sits in the mid-90s -- it also has elite spin. In 2017, across the regular season and postseason, his average fastball spin rate was 2,502 rpm. Of the 128 MLB starting pitchers who threw at least 500 four-seamers last year, Darvish had the third-highest spin rate, behind only two of the game's true aces, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. The MLB average four-seam spin rate was just 2,255 rpm.
Highest average four-seam spin rate by a starting pitcher in 2017
Minimum 500 four-seamers thrown

  1. Justin Verlander: 2,552 rpm
  2. Max Scherzer: 2,504 rpm
    3. Yu Darvish: 2,502 rpm
  3. Sonny Gray: 2,484 rpm
  4. (tie) Tyler Chatwood: 2,482 rpm
  5. (tie) Jeff Samardzija: 2,482 rpm
    One of the key insights from the three years pitches have been measured by Statcast™ is that a four-seamer with higher spin tends to get more swings and misses. The high spin creates the "rising fastball" effect -- the baseball defies gravity for slightly longer than the hitter expects, making him more likely to whiff.
    With that rise effect, high-spin four-seamers can play especially well when the pitcher elevates them. Pitchers like Verlander and Scherzer make a living off blowing hitters away with high-spin, high-velocity fastballs up in the zone.
    But while Darvish's spin is comparable to that of Verlander and Scherzer, there is a major difference when it comes to pitch location: Darvish doesn't focus on the high fastball like they do.

    On average, a Darvish four-seamer in 2017 crossed the plate at a height of 2.36 feet off the ground, according to Statcast™. That was tied for the 14th-lowest average four-seam pitch height out of the 128 starting pitchers who threw 500-plus four-seamers. Scherzer, by contrast, had an average four-seam height of 2.81 feet; Verlander's was 2.79 feet. That means Scherzer's and Verlander's fastballs crossed the plate nearly a half-foot higher, on average, than Darvish's. Their averages both ranked among the top 25 highest four-seamers.

    The Statcast™ strike zone map below further illustrates the difference. Darvish threw his four-seamer in the upper third of the strike zone or higher only 33.3 percent of the time, the 18th-lowest rate of the 198-pitcher group. He threw his four-seamer in the lower third of the zone or below 45.4 percent of the time, the 16th-highest rate of all those pitchers.
    Verlander elevated his four-seam 54.2 percent of the time, and he threw low fastballs just 25.2 percent of the time. Scherzer threw high fastballs 54.0 percent of the time and low fastballs just 21.7 percent of the time. Again, they and Darvish were on opposite ends of the spectrum.

    Plenty of pitchers work effectively with low fastballs. Clayton Kershaw, for example, elevates even less frequently than Darvish does. But Darvish has the high spin rate that Kershaw doesn't, and that suggests that the right-hander might be missing some opportunities to go upstairs.
    When Darvish does throw his fastball high, the pitch has been much tougher on hitters than when he throws it low. On at-bats decided by elevated fastballs last season, Darvish held hitters to an expected wOBA -- a Statcast™ metric for overall performance based on strikeouts, walks and quality of contact allowed -- of just .238. Against Darvish's low fastballs, hitters posted an xwOBA of .354.

For some context: The overall xwOBA on all elevated four-seamers thrown in the Majors last season was .305. On low four-seamers, the overall xwOBA was .379. So Darvish was better than average whether he threw his fastball high or low -- but his degree of separation from the rest of the league was much greater on his high fastballs. Darvish was 67 points of xwOBA better than average on high fastballs, versus 25 points better on low fastballs.
Darvish's high fastball was especially hard to hit. Last season, he ranked No. 1 in whiff rate on elevated four-seamers, of the 128 starting pitchers who had at least 100 swings against those pitches. Batters whiffed on 42.2 percent of their swings against Darvish's high heat. Of the 145 total swinging strikes Darvish got on his four-seamer last year, 92 -- nearly two-thirds -- came when he elevated.
Highest whiff-per-swing percentage on four-seamers in upper third of zone or higher by a starting pitcher in 2017
Minimum 100 swings on high fastballs
1. Yu Darvish: 42.2%

  1. Jacob deGrom: 40.1%
  2. Rich Hill: 38.0%
  3. Danny Salazar: 37.0%
  4. Robbie Ray: 35.7%

Darvish's rate stats shouldn't be surprising. These are the type of swing-and-miss numbers that a pitcher with a top-tier fastball spin rate has the potential to post when he works up in the zone.
Darvish's fastball spin separates him from the majority of Major League starting pitchers. It's an edge his team should want to take advantage of. And he's come to the right place.

David Adler is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.