Fantasy Baseball: Can Yu Darvish Regain His Status as a Top Starting Pitcher?

Yu Darvish's return from Tommy John surgery went smooth in 2016. Can we expect even better results in 2017?

Yu Darvish has been a premier starting pitcher -- and a fantasy baseball asset -- since joining the Texas Rangers from Japan before the 2012 season. Not every pitcher makes the transition look easy, but he did just that by finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2012 and followed that up with a second-place finish for the 2013 AL Cy Young award.

The right-hander's 2013 campaign showed just how high his ceiling is. In 209.2 innings of work, he posted a 13-9 record with a 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 277 strikeouts, which was good or a 5.8 bWAR. He led the league with 11.98 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), which is the second-highest mark in a single season among qualified pitchers since 2012.

Pitcher Season K/9
Jose Fernandez 2016 12.48
Yu Darvish 2013 11.89
Chris Sale 2015 11.82
Clayton Kershaw 2015 11.64
Robbie Ray 2016 11.25
Max Scherzer 2016 11.19

Although he was limited to 144.1 innings in 2014, he still managed to post a 3.06 ERA, 2.83 Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) and followed up that impressive K/9 from the year before with an 11.3 mark.

Unfortunately, he felt that dreaded pain that a lot pitchers have felt in recent years during Spring Training in 2015. Darvish's season was over before it even got started, and he also missed the first two months of 2016 before making his return from Tommy John surgery.

But when he did climb back up on the mound, he didn't miss a beat.

Like He Never Left

In just 17 starts (100.1 innings) last season, Darvish showed he was virtually the same kind of pitcher he was before needing Tommy John. In fact, some peripheral numbers show he could be improving.

His 3.09 FIP and 3.08 SIERA suggest he pitched better than his 3.41 ERA indicates, while his 11.84 K/9 was almost identical to that impressive 2013 campaign. Furthermore, Darvish actually improved his control -- he allowed 3.6 walks per nine innings (BB/9) during his first three MLB seasons, but posted a 2.78 BB/9 in 2016.

These numbers out of context are very good; doing it in your first season back from Tommy John surgery is phenomenal.

Inducing More Soft Contact

Another promising sign from Darvish's return is that he induced more soft contact than ever before.

After watching his soft-hit rate hover in the upper-teens during his first three seasons, it made a substantial jump in 2016, which also coincided with a decrease in line-drive rate and hard-hit rate.

Here's the year-by-year batted ball progression, and it's clear to see why it's right to feel so encouraged about his performance.

Year Line Drive % Ground ball % Fly Ball % Soft % Medium % Hard %
2012 22.2% 46.2% 31.6% 18.1% 56.3% 25.6%
2013 20.9% 41.0% 38.1% 17.9% 51.6% 30.5%
2014 22.8% 36.3% 40.9% 16.4% 51.1% 32.5%
2016 19.6% 40.4% 40.0% 22.8% 47.2% 30.0%

This progression can also be noticed in his BABIP. He watched opposing hitters compile a career-high .334 BABIP against him in 2014, but that dropped back down to .290 in 2016, which is more in with what he did earlier in his career (.295 in '12, .264 in '13).

Clearly, Darvish is making it difficult for opposing hitters to square up a ball, which is something he should be able to maintain moving forward because of how many pitches he can throw at any time.

A 5-Pitch Repertoire

The right-hander's pitch arsenal is a unique aspect of his game that can't be overlooked.

It's not uncommon for starting pitchers to have three or even four pitches they feel confident throwing in a game on a regular basis. However, Darvish throws five pitches (four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, splitter, cutter, curveball and slider). Since hitters need to be prepared for such a variety of offerings, he can use this to his advantage in order to keep them off balance.

The difference in the velocity of his four-seamer (93.6 MPH last season) and curveball (71.4 MPH) is significant, so it shouldn't be surprising to see opposing hitters struggling to make solid contact on a consistent basis -- just take a look at this mesmerizing GIF from 2013 that overlays all five of his pitches with Albert Pujols at the plate.

Fantasy Outlook

It can be unsettling to draft your anticipated "ace" when they're less than two years removed from a major surgery, but after looking at his return in 2016, what's keeping Darvish from breaking back into the top tier of starters?

His strikeout rate has always been there, and he's issuing less walks than ever before. He also induced more weak contact with a dazzling array of pitches at his disposal. The risk of re-injury is always there, but just about every player is at risk of injuring themselves upon taking the field.

NFBC currently has Darvish as the eighth starting pitcher off the board with an average draft position (ADP) of 35.88. That's puts him in the same tier -- and right in between -- Jake Arrieta (32.90 ADP, seventh pitcher off the board) and Jon Lester (35.98 ADP, ninth pitcher off the board).

Entering just his age-30 season -- and the final year of his current contract -- the above stats show it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest Darvish can regain his place among the top non-Clayton Kershaw tier of starting pitchers, and would absolutely be worth a third- or fourth-round pick.