This is a picture of Yu Darvish. I wrote something about him.

This is a picture of Yu Darvish. I wrote something about him.

There are plenty of topics that the average Dallas sports fan should be concerned about, but Yu Darvish should not be one of them. It is simply mind-boggling that writers, fans, and even long-tenured employees of the Texas Rangers, a notoriously pitching deficient franchise, can watch a legitimate number 1 starting pitcher (an “ace”, if you like), take the mound every fifth day with video-game stuff and still say he needs to be better. The numbers are out there for anyone to find, but by all accounts Darvish is easily a top 10 pitcher in all of baseball, and a top 5 in the American League. His 2.68 ERA is third in the AL. With apologies to Ranger mythology and romanticized Texas legends, If Darvish simply maintains his current performance level for another 4-5 years, he will go down as the best starting pitcher in Texas Rangers franchise history. Better than Nolan. Better than Fergie. Currently, in all of Major League Baseball, only 6 pitchers require less from their offense than Darvish does in order for their team to win a game in which he starts. That is true, top of the line, Cy Young, good-as-it-gets, ace performance. So what are we talking about here?

On a personal level, I must admit that I seriously second-guessed myself when I discovered who was on the side that says Darvish needs to be better. As it turns out, the great Eric Nadel is pretty active on Twitter, and was gracious enough to respond twice to questions I sent him about Darvish. His tweets to me made the following points:

@TimDevine: Believe me, I take no joy in being right at the expense of the great @nadeler

@Nadeler: @TimDevine hahaha…none of your stats addresses the real issue with darvish…appreciate the kind words though. really.

@TimDevine: @nadeler you sir are a legend, but I can’t wrap my head around why it matters when Yu gives up 2 if he only gives up 2…it’s on the line-up

@Nadeler: @TimDevine when the team busts it’s butt to get u a lead in the 6th inn you have to shut it down. That’s why.

This is the legend of the “SDI”, or “shut-down inning”, and it speaks to one of the more, shall we say, intangible aspects of the game. The idea is that when an offense gives a team a lead, it is extra important that its pitcher keep the other team from scoring in the following half inning. If a pitcher fails to execute the SDI, then the team feels some emotional letdown that carries over into offensive and/or defensive performance. (Somehow, the failed SDI must have some effect on player performance, otherwise it wouldn’t really be worth talking about.) This is the factor, according to some, that Darvish lacks; this is what keeps him from being “great”, or where his “issue” lies. (Note: to be clear, I am not in any way insinuating that Nadel, Newberg, etc do not think Darvish is a very good pitcher. Newberg says in today’s report that Darvish “is an ace” but “needs to be better”.)

To truly appreciate the no-win situation in which Darvish finds himself, one needs only to be reminded of the popular early season Darvish narrative:

@newbury1310: Darvish has given up 23 runs this year…11 have come in the first inning (5/27/13)

@vincebaseball: No shock that you want to get to Darvish early…9 of his 20 runs allowed have come in the first inning this season (5/21/13)

@espn_durrett: That’s 9 runs given up by Yu Darvish in the first inning. He’s allowed just 12 all year. #firstinningissues (5/5/13)

@JeffWilson_FWST: Chicago, the worst hitting team in the American League, has scored two first-inning runs against Yu Darvish. #Rangers. (4/30/13)

So what keeps Darvish from being considered great? Why is he not an ace? For the first few months of the season, the reason seems to be his problematic early inning performances. Now, it’s his inability to execute the “Shut Down Inning” late in games. It seems as though Darvish’s real issue is not actually when he gives up runs, but that he gives them up at all. A truly “great” pitcher doesn’t allow runs early in a game, or late, or after his team has just scored…but there are no 0.00 ERAs in baseball history, so at some point he must allow something without it meaning he “needs to be better”. If he were allowing runs at an alarming rate, say 2 in the first AND 3 in the 7th, this might hold water. But he ERA currently sits at 2.68, good for 7th among starting pitchers in all of baseball. Opponents are hitting .191 against him this season. He leads the league in strikeouts by a considerable margin (don’t buy the narrative that strikeouts are a “glamor” stat. Pop-outs and ground outs can still be productive outs; they can advance or even score a runner. Pitching to contact opens the door for errors, poor fielding decisions, balls getting lost in the sun or taking bad hops, missed calls by umpires, etc). Given these facts, the note that the Rangers are 14-11 in Darvish starts is a pretty meaningless stat as far as critiquing Yu goes, and deep down, most people know that to be true even if they don’t want to admit it. Want proof? If the playoffs started today, is the any, and I mean any question at all who starts game 1? Of course not. Yu Darvish is on the hill; he’s your ace. If that 14-11 record were any real reflection on Darvish, there’d be at least some hesitation about starting him given the team has a much higher winning percentage with their other starters.

The bottom line is when a starting pitcher consistently goes 7 innings and gives up 2 runs, he should win most of those games. If he doesn’t, that’s on the offense (or maybe the opposing pitcher’s stuff was just that good). No one seems to dispute this fact when Darvish has those stats but gives up 1 in the 3rd inning and 1 in the 5th instead of 2 in the 7th; that is usually considered an ace performance, and if the Rangers lose 2-1, the narrative will center around the ineptitude of the offense. “Sorry about baseball, Yu”.

Nadel seems to criticize Darvish for demoralizing the team if his 2 runs allowed come right after the Rangers take a 2-0 lead. But again, if the Rangers can only muster 2 runs of offense, isn’t that where most of the responsibility lies? If one is making a list of who needs to be better, doesn’t it start with any number of Ranger hitters? How demoralizing must it be to know that you have to be perfect (which Darvish has almost been on a few occasions) in order to beat the White Sox? Isn’t the real “demoralizing” factor that Darvish is shutting down opposing line-ups, dominating them, making them look silly, knowing he will hold them to around 2 runs per 7 innings and it still might not be enough? Maybe it shouldn’t be if he’s opposing Felix Hernandez or Verlander, but those aren’t the guys shutting down the Rangers in Yu starts lately. Incidentally, Adam Morris (@LoneStarBall) tweeted the following W/L records for other “aces” when their run support is 2 or less:

Chris Carpenter: 13-49
Felix Hernandez: 19-52
Jared Weaver: 10-35

Also this: “@LoneStarBall: Justin Verlander, in his 8th major league season, has won 6 games in his career when getting 0-2 runs of support. Yu has already won 3.”

If a team is “demoralized” because their starting pitcher allowed 2 runs when they could only score 2 themselves, that’s on the line-up to be better. It’s basically asking the starting pitcher for a 0.77 ERA because the offense could only muster 1 run. Maybe the fact that Darvish gave up a 2-0 lead in the half-inning after it was given to him illustrates, as Jamey Newberg implies, that Darvish currently lacks an “extra gear” that great pitchers have. Maybe. Or maybe Darvish is a full-time, maximum effort player that presses for perfection without letting up. Maybe he doesn’t “have an extra gear” because we’re seeing it all the time, in every start, every inning, and that’s how he’s striking out 12 hitters per 9 innings while keeping opposing line-ups below the Mendoza line (or at a .594 OPS, good for 6th best in all of baseball, if that’s your thing).

Put it this way: if a team is offered a pitcher that is guaranteed in every start to go at least 7 innings and give up 2 runs, that team would take it every time, put that player and his 2.57 ERA at the top of the rotation, and watch him compete for Cy Young awards for years to come. That player would be the #1 starter in a playoff series for almost any team in the league, and at least in the discussion to start over Hernandez, Verlander…pretty much anyone not named Kershaw. That team would not first ask when those runs would be allowed; they’d simply say something to the effect of “if we can’t score 3, most nights we don’t really deserve to win anyway”. Truthfully, the best critique people seem to have of Darvish is that he’s something like 27th in innings pitched, but he usually goes 7, and with bullpen specialization the way it is now, Washington is probably using Nathan in the 9th of a close game anyway.

So with all the tangible, measurable numbers suggesting Darvish is as good, if not better, than most other “ace” pitchers in the league, why does he still have something to prove? Who knows. Truthfully, the debate between whether Darvish is very good or great seems to hinge on when he allows his two runs a game to score. For me, the fact that he only allows two makes him an ace, and I have a feeling that without the microscope of obsessing over his every start, most would feel the same. Obviously the criteria as to what is “fair” or “unfair” criticism is subjective, but without a doubt Darvish has the smallest gap between actual performance and maximum potential on this team. Beltre’s been great, for example, but he has more room for improvement this season than Darvish does. No one on this team is maximizing his talent better than Darvish this season, which means that he really doesn’t need to be any better. Could he be better? Technically, everyone could, I guess. But to say that he “is an ace” but “needs to be better” sounds a little like the baseball equivalent of criticizing Jonas Salk for failing to cure Cancer after successfully curing Polio. I guess technically he could have done more, but…