Alan Truex: Cubs sign Darvish to return to World Series, forget the last one

Last time anyone saw Yu Darvish on a baseball mound, he was serving high-velocity batting practice to the Houston Astros in the World Series.  The ball was leaving his right hand traveling 96 mph, returning at 107.  For his own safety, he shoulda worn a catcher’s mask.

If you were late for his two starts – later than the second out of the second inning — you didn’t see him at all.  In cities with as many automobiles as LA and Houston, it’s more challenging than you may think to get to your seat before Darvish gets his shower.

He had a World Series total of one swinging strike (some insist that one was a foul) and he was done and gone.

So now, 3½ months later, he’s suddenly the most cherished pitcher in baseball, go figure.  The Chicago Cubs have hired Darvish to be their ace or at least their No. 2 starter behind Kyle Hendricks.

Call me skeptical.  How long will the October horrors haunt Darvish?   And how much is left in that 31-year-old arm?

He was pitching in Japan’s big leagues when he was 18.  Since then he’s logged more than 2,000 innings in Japan and America.

Cubs president Theo Epstein agreed to pay him $126 million over the next six years.  Darvish will be 37 when it’s over, unless the Cubs opt out after two years, as some reports say they can, for a price of course.

There’s much gabbing in Chicago about risk/reward.  Epstein is betting he will see the Darvish A-game for at least two years, and it will be worth the cost.

He could be right.  Epstein constructed a roster that achieved what was all but mathematically impossible.  He won a world championship for the Cubs, in 2016, after they failed for 70 consecutive years.  So when Theo Epstein talks, I listen.  Especially when he’s putting Tom Ricketts’ money where his mouth is.

If you’re considering market value: Epstein gave Jon Lester a 6-year deal at $155 million when he was 31 and had been battling cancer (lymphoma) for nine years.  The risk was extreme, but so was the reward: championship rings.  Lester won 19 games in the 2016 season and three more in the postseason.

The Cubs are one of the most profitable franchises in baseball, and one of the youngest.  Even with Darvish, their player payroll is middle of the pack.  So they have money to burn.

And Darvish at his best is as good as anyone.   Recall 2012-2014, when he won 39 games, lost 25, pitched 545 innings in the American League and struck out 680 Americans.  He was a sabermetrics dream, all the WHIP, WAR and CERA you could ever want.  He was 25-27 years old, Japan’s most famous pitcher and its most popular male model, clothed or not.

At 6-foot-5, he was as overpowering a force as there was in this global sport.  His fastball was top-10, his slider second to none.  But that was before he became acquainted with Tommy John.  

Before Tommy John surgery, which happened, originally, in 1974 to Tommy John, pitchers suffered gradual – or not – destruction of their throwing elbow.  They struggled through it, or did not.  “Sore arm” inexorably devolved into “dead arm.”

But with Dr. Frank Jobe’s orthopedic breakthrough, the elbow could become stronger than it was in the first place.  The flimsy and flawed ligament is replaced by a sturdy tendon from another part of the body, such as forearm or foot.

Results can be miraculous.  Tommy John won 164 games with his transplanted tendon.  John Smoltz is in the Hall of Fame because of that complex procedure.  Notable recent successes: Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg, Jacob deGrom.

The downside to such elbow reconstruction is that recovery is always slow and too often incomplete.  See: Matt Harvey, Mike Hampton, Danny Salazar, Zack Wheeler.

Typically the pitcher misses an entire season following the surgery, then throws as hard as he did before his injury.  But for at least a year after returning to action, he’s not as consistent with downforce on the forearm.  It may be psychological, reluctance to drive the wrist to the limit.

Too many intended breaking balls staying on a flat line.  So, more home runs allowed.  Darvish seems typical: missed all of 2015, is .500 since then.  He’s a good No. 3 starter, which is where the Dodgers had him.  He was 10-12 last season with an earned run average of 3.86.  He gave up a career-high 27 homers.

Which did not come close to foretelling his postseason cliff dive.  It was the most cataclysmic World Series debacle by a pitcher since 1919, when Claude “Lefty” Williams was trying to lose.  In a best-of-9 Series, Williams lost three games but twice made it through the second inning.  His ERA for the Chicago Black Sox was 6.61.  Darvish was 21.60 in his World Series with the apparently clean Dodgers.

It was as if the Astros knew what pitches were coming.  Perhaps they did know.  

Semi-privately, some Astros said Darvish tipped off his pitches.  There were reports in prior years of him doing that, and he’s acknowledged as much.

In the World Series, the “tell” was that while staring at his catcher’s sign, he held the ball at his side with a fastball grip.  If the ball moved when it was in the glove, he was changing grip.  The subsequent pitch would be a breaker.

But his breaking balls weren’t breaking much.  There were allegations by pitchers on both teams that the baseballs in the World Series were “slick,” which weakened the grip.  Thus, hanging sliders.  Mostly from Darvish, but also a few from the impeccable Justin Verlander, who said the balls were suspicious.

Conspiracy buffs have not been so excited since they first heard the words “grassy knoll.”   As they see it, Commissioner Manfred wanted more home runs, so he told Haiti to alter the way it makes baseballs.  The poor little shit-hole country had no choice, or we tear up the trade agreement and sign a new one with Norway.

A year from now, all that may be forgotten.  Let’s hope.

Perhaps we’ll be talking about the Cubs winning the World Series because Darvish, not the Haitians, made adjustments.  His role model could be Verlander, now 34, a power pitcher going more off-speed, sharpening his command and using all four corners of the strike zone, treating it like a canvas, painting only the edges.

One reward of the Darvish ubersigning: it should end the threat of a baseball work stoppage as spring training begins.  Players had been grumbling about owners colluding like Russians, suppressing the money for free agents.

As Yu Darvish tries to calculate how many millions of green Yankee dollars he converts into how many billions of yen, America may not care to hear about the depressed salaries in baseball.  Now it looks like we won’t have to.  Thank Yu.

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