Free agency is not a particularly significant part of the equation when it comes to building a title contender in the luxury tax era. Of the twelve most valuable players on the 2017 Houston Astros, only one of them, Josh Reddick, was acquired via MLB free agency. Even for the money-printing Los Angeles Dodgers, the story was similar—only two of their top twelve players, Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen, had signed free agent contracts (and both were re-upping with the Dodgers, with Turner in particular being considered a relatively team-friendly signing). Free agency is where teams fill the (hopefully few) holes left unfilled by drafting, developing, and trading for the core of a championship contender.
Most fans (and hopefully front office personnel) were disappointed by the 83-79 season just posted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017, and thus the off-season provides the first steps on the road to redemption—the chance to build a team to put forth a more earnest attempt at bringing a 12th World Series title to St. Louis. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the Cardinals truly deserved their slightly-above-average record or if they deserved better or worse—by improving upon existing parts, the odds of October baseball improve regardless.
Free agency has returned, and the big names, as is generally the case, are not actually among baseball’s truly elite players. Even in 2015-16’s class, one of the more loaded free agent groups in recent memory, the big three players in the class were, by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the 13th (David Price), 16th (Jason Heyward), and 18th (Zack Greinke) best players in baseball in 2015, and only Greinke (24th) came close to reaching this level of performance two seasons later.
According to many sources, including MLB Trade Rumors, Yu Darvish is the best free agent on the market this off-season. According to FanGraphs, Darvish was the 68th best player in baseball in 2017.
The latter does not disprove the former, mind you. While fellow free agents J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer were more productive in 2017, Yu Darvish entered the season with more of a track record. And being the 68th best player in a 30-team league is nothing to scoff at, anyway—if baseball talent were evenly distributed, this would make him the third-best player on a team in the strongest baseball league on the planet.
In 2017, Yu Darvish, who turned 31 in August, had his worst full season as a Major League Baseball pitcher. But it was still a more productive season than Lance Lynn, also a free agent, had for the Cardinals. They had nearly identical innings totals—Darvish bested Lynn by 1⁄3 of an inning, though perhaps one can give Lynn a slight bump because it was his first season coming off season-ending Tommy John surgery. Lynn was better by earned-run average, allowing 3.43 earned runs per nine innings to Darvish’s 3.86, but by fielding-independent metrics, Darvish easily surpassed Lynn.
2017 Yu Darvish: 186 2/3 IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.71 SIERA, 3.08 DRA
2017 Lance Lynn: 186 1⁄3 IP, 3.43 ERA, 4.82 FIP, 4.85 SIERA, 4.54 DRA
Even by ERA, the gap is a bit smaller if adjusting for park and league (Darvish spent most of his 2017 playing his home games in Texas, a hitter’s park in the more offense-heavy American League)—Lance Lynn had an ERA+ of 124 (24% above average) and Yu Darvish had an ERA+ of 122. Darvish is a top-tier free agent pitcher, along with Jake Arrieta, and Lynn is probably in the second tier, and these stats show that difference.
But unfortunately for Yu Darvish, the postseason happened.
Or, more specifically, the World Series happened. Darvish pitched well in his first two postseason starts, allowing one run in five innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks and one run in 6 1⁄3 innings against the Chicago Cubs. But his World Series starts, in which Darvish combined for 3 1⁄3 innings, eight earned runs, and zero strikeouts over two games, both of which the Dodgers lost, were nothing short of disastrous.
This is not to say that Darvish isn’t “clutch”—whether you believe that “clutch” exists, it’s a bit silly to make a determination that an otherwise good pitcher is a choker based on two lousy starts. Plus, there are alternating external theories about Darvish’s struggles, one which bodes well for Darvish (that the World Series baseballs were unusually slick, disproportionately affecting sliders for a week but probably not beyond that), and one which bodes more poorly (that he’s tipping pitches). Since I don’t have any new evidence of either, I’ll call them a push for now.
His numbers in these starts do not count in his overall season statistics, mostly for record-keeping reasons (1961 baseball fans lost their minds over the possibility of Roger Maris breaking the single-season home run record with eight extra games; imagine if players had up to 20 extra games to compile numbers). But how would Darvish’s numbers look if they did count? This is not giving Darvish’s poor postseason extra weight, but rather equal weight with regular season starts.
Darvish regular season: 186 2⁄3 IP, 80 ER, 27 HR, 58 BB, 209 K, 3.86 ERA, 3.83 FIP
Darvish overall season: 201 1⁄3 IP, 90 ER, 31 HR, 61 BB, 223 K, 4.02 ERA, 3.96 FIP
By fWAR, Darvish would have been the second-best Cardinal in 2017, behind Tommy Pham and ahead of, among others, Carlos Martinez. Here’s a refresher on Martinez’s 2017 statistics.
Martinez regular season: 205 IP, 83 ER, 27 HR, 71 BB, 217 K, 3.64 ERA, 3.91 FIP
Two bad starts shouldn’t be enough to make a good pitcher look bad, but they can be enough to make a pitcher go from looking slightly better than Carlos Martinez to slightly worse than Carlos Martinez. And while this was a down season for Darvish even before the World Series, it was a down season for Martinez as well—his worst by ERA and FIP since becoming a starter.
Even in the post-Moneyball era of baseball analysis, there are still wings that focus disproportionate energy on postseason success, the people who would rather have Madison Bumgarner than Clayton Kershaw, or think less of Mike Trout because the Los Angeles Angels haven’t won a playoff game since he joined them—they’re smaller wings than they were decades ago, but the sentiment prevails.
Knocking Darvish a few points for two bad starts is far from that—this is simply considering all available information when evaluating a pitcher who will earn a nine-figure contract rather than dismissing some games altogether because of accounting.
Darvish is still a good pitcher, and he’s still probably the best pitcher on the free agent market, but the postseason was a display that acquiring Darvish does not mean acquiring a franchise-altering player. He might literally be the biggest free agent acquisition of the off-season in baseball, and yet he is still fundamentally “a guy”. This isn’t even new information—fans, and often teams, just happen to get enamored by a guy being the best in his class and confuse that with being the best player, or one of the best players, in baseball.
Yu Darvish would be a helpful piece for the Cardinals, or any team, but for the Earth-shattering, game-changing player that has been hinted since the season ended, the Cardinals will have to go the trade route. Whether acquiring a free agent or two is sufficient may depend on whether you believe the Cardinals are close to contention—if they are, it’s fine, but if they aren’t, Darvish won’t be the guy to put them there.