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Why Yu Darvish Will Love Hollywood (And Vice Versa)

Darvish, now in Dodger blue, is poised to dominate in his new digs.

In the final moments of the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired starting pitcher Yu Darvish from the Texas Rangers for minor league infielders Willie Calhoun and Brendan Davis and minor league pitcher A.J. Alexy. It was a long-rumored deal, the saga of which nevertheless lasted all the way to the 4 PM mark of deadline day. The righty Darvish will slot behind lefty ace Clayton Kershaw, creating a formidable rotation that, Los Angeles hopes, can carry the National League’s best team (and perhaps one of the best teams in recent memory) deep into October.

Although the Rangers did not acquire one of the Dodgers’ top two prospects for Darvish (as they had reportedly desired), the trade still has the potential to be a boon for Texas. And although the Dodgers did not surrender one of their high-tier minor league pieces, it was by no means a steal for L.A. Given the strength of a healthy Dodgers staff, there was a question as to whether or not they even needed a starter at the deadline.

Moreover, there were plenty of question marks surrounding Darvish before he was dealt. Darvish had in July one of the worst months of his career, exhibited an odd but noticed struggle against leadoff hitters, and, of course, has some injury history courtesy of Tommy John surgery in 2015. In spite of these flaws, the righty projects as a top-10 pitcher over the rest of the season.

In Darvish’s first outing as a Dodger on August 4th, he threw seven innings of shutout ball against the New York Mets. He struck out 10, walked just one, and shared an awkward hug with manager Dave Roberts after completing the seventh. So far, so good for Yu in Dodger blue. What else can we expect from him over the next few months, having moved from America’s heartland to the West Coast? Outside of the benefits of pitching in the no-DH National League, there are three reasons why Darvish is poised to dominate in Dodgertown.

The Ballpark

Image titleStephen Dunn - Getty Images

Darvish’s switch from Texas to Los Angeles means a different home ballpark, trading Globe Life Park in Arlington for Dodger Stadium. Traditionally, the Texas heat gives Globe Life the reputation of a hitters’ haven, whereas Chavez Ravine is said to help the pitcher more than the hitter. To confirm those theories, let’s first look to each park’s dimensions. Visually, here is how the two compare according to Greg Rybarczyk of ESPN’s Home Run Tracker:

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The corners and dead centerfield appear to be nearly equal, with the Dodgers having deeper fences in straightaway left and right field and the Rangers having longer power alleys in left-center and right-center. Otherwise, it is not readily apparent how this change in venue affects Darvish’s performance.

What if, using StatCast and BaseballSavant, we took Yu’s batted ball data from the first half of the season in Texas and just changed the field to Chavez Ravine? Below is a spray chart of StatCast-tracked batted balls in Globe Life Park:

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And here is what that looks like at Dodger Stadium:

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Once again, this does not help us too much. When it comes to ballparks, dimensions are just one of many factors, such as wind physics and wall height. Home runs at a specific field per game could be more helpful, and according to Rybarcyzk Texas averages more long balls per contest (3.02) than Los Angeles (2.47). Yet these numbers do not account for the existence of a DH in the American League, or for the home run propensity of each team regardless of the ballpark. That is to say, by the mere presence of a Cody Bellinger or a Joey Gallo these figures could lead us astray.

Thankfully for us, FanGraphs just performed a mid-season park factor review. Calculating a stadium’s park factor is notoriously complex, but reading the metric is simple. A park factor above 100 favors hitters and below 100 favors pitchers. That number, however, is just on average, which is why it is helpful to be aware of a stadium’s specifics like its dimensions.

To date, Texas’ park factor is 100.4, or slightly in favor of offense. The Dodgers home park leans in favor of pitchers with a park factor of 97.0.  The difference is more pronounced when looking exclusively at home runs. Per FanGraphs, Globe Life Park has a park factor for home runs of 111, one standard deviation above the mean. The Dodgers are also above the mean, but at a more reasonable home run park factor of 104.

These numbers just confirm what we had long assumed about each ballpark: Texas plays to offense, Los Angeles plays to the pitcher. Specifically, moving to Dodger Stadium might help Darvish limit the long ball; Darvish’s 14.4% home runs per fly ball rate ties a career worst for the righty, and the move out west might keep the ball in the ballpark a little more often. Minimizing one of Darvish’s small problems is a win for the Dodgers.

The Defense

Image titleDavid Banks - USA Today Sports

Darvish is not only playing in a new home ballpark, but he is also playing in front of an entirely new defense. Glancing at the team leaderboards for Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) reveals that the Dodgers are baseball’s sixth-best defensive team and the Rangers are 13th. When narrowed to active rosters (to account for trades, injuries, or past roster call-ups), the Dodgers rise to second and the Rangers fall all the way to 19th. As a strikeout machine, Darvish does not need to rely on his defense as often as other pitchers, but at face value the Dodgers offer better fielding support than his Rangers supplied.

Naturally, we cannot stop there. Like ballparks, a team defense is the combination of many factors. Let’s split each team’s defense into infielders and outfielders, and then compare the total defensive value (using FanGraphs Def) of each. We will look at catchers later. For each team’s respective infield:

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Los Angeles holds a healthy lead when it comes to infield defense, though a full season of Texas’ Adrian Beltre might slice into that commanding edge. How does outfield defense compare?

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Neither team’s outfield defense is that great, but the Dodgers are less bad as a whole. Shin-Soo Choo’s escapades in right field brought down the Rangers cumulative score a ton, and in light of that fact the two outfields are very comparable.

How do these defensive specifics impact Darvish? On one hand, Darvish is more of a fly ball pitcher than a sinkerballer. His GB/FB ratio (1.09) and his GB% (40.3%) are both below the league average (1.25 and 44.3%, respectively). Because the Rangers and Dodgers outfields are similar, one would not expect much of a change in fly ball outcomes (outside of home run prevention, which is why his change of venue is a positive for Darvish).

The infield defense is huge, given that the Dodgers trump the Rangers defensively at every position. Darvish may not be a ground ball specialist, but over 40% of his balls in play have to pass through this much-improved infield. He might run into some bad luck as pitchers inevitably do, but his fly ball tendency and great infield defense behind him could help sustain his .272 BABIP against. Just like the different park tendencies, the Los Angeles defense is another reason to believe Darvish can perform better than his numbers from Texas.

The Catcher

Image titleSean M. Haffy - Getty Images

Ballpark and defense might be the go-to “change of scenery” arguments for or against a pitcher’s chances of thriving in a new environment. They are also the most visible; totally different dimensions and a new set of seven fielders behind a pitcher stick out like a sore thumb. At the same time, witnessing their respective impacts is somewhat rare. Maybe Corey Seager gets to a grounder that would eluded for Elvis Andrus, or maybe a deep fly ball to the warning track in left field at Dodger Stadium would have been off or over the wall at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

Not to minimize those circumstantial impacts, but they are just that: circumstantial. For all we know, Darvish might never give up a home run that would have been out at one park and in play in another. These events are isolated and separate. The greatest change for Darvish is not the team behind him or the field he now calls home, but rather the man squatting 60.5 feet from the mound: Yasmani Grandal.

For those of you who are unaware, Grandal has been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball over the past few seasons. He has the best Defensive Runs Above Average (11.1) of all catchers, just slightly ahead of Wilson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs. His Catcher ERA is a career-best 2.99, though one could fairly attribute that to the strong Dodgers staff. His only issue used to be his below-average throwing arm, yet over the past three seasons he has exceeded the league average caught stealing rate. His CS% this year (39%) is far above his career number (26%), turning his weakness into a strength.

But what makes Grandal special is his framing ability. According to StatCorner, Grandal is the second-best catcher in framing runs above average (11.6). Any pitcher would love to throw to a guy like Grandal, who by his glovework wizardry earns his battery mate more favorable counts.

(Even as a San Diego Padre, Grandal had the framing gene.)

Grandal’s situation in 2017 is the opposite of former Texas catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Once an elite pitch-framer, Lucroy fell off a cliff this year in his ability to steal strikes. StatCorner has him as baseball’s worst framing catcher by a sizable margin. His time in Texas put him 21.0 framing runs below average. Since his trade to the Colorado Rockies, his framing struggles have continued, dropping him 2.0 runs further below the average

Over his career in Texas, Yu Darvish pitched to only Geovany Soto (26 games) more often than Lucroy (21). His ERA with Lucroy behind the dish (4.11) is the second-worst among all of his Texas battery mates, and his OPS against is the third-worst (.693). Darvish’s strikeouts per nine with Lucroy is 10.51, which is honestly great. However, it is a touch below his career average of 11.06 K/9, even as hitters today whiff at higher and higher rates.

I do not think one can estimate in numeric detail how Darvish will improve with a better framing catcher in Grandal behind the plate. But when you consider that Darvish will throw 100+ pitches per game to a catcher who is more than 30 framing runs better than his past backstop, it could just be the most substantial positive impact for Darvish and the Dodgers.


Image titleJohn Amis - AP Photo

Of course the Dodgers like having Yu Darvish in L.A. The best got better by acquiring a deadline ace, and they keep on winning at a pace unseen in a century. Darvish, along with deadline acquisitions Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson, are not so much pieces to the puzzle as they are cherries and hot fudge on top. With Darvish in tow, Los Angeles could make a realistic push at the all-time record for wins in a season.

If you are Yu Darvish, the next two or more months could be a major stock-booster for your upcoming free agency. Los Angeles is a pitcher’s paradise, thanks to a ballpark that plays in their favor, a defense that ranks among the best in the National League, and a generationally talented framing catcher. Darvish can be the same pitcher and exhibit the same quality of stuff, and watch as his numbers rise across the board.

For pitchers, the stars are aligned in Hollywood. Maybe the cosmos have a championship parade in store as well.

*All statistics are accurate as of August 7th, 2017 and, unless otherwise noted, were obtained from Baseball-Reference, BaseballSavant, ESPN, and FanGraphs, respectively.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Kat Johansen.

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Created 8/7/17
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