Cubs

Yu Darvish weighs in on Astros cheating allegations

Yu Darvish weighs in on Astros cheating allegations

Cubs starter Yu Darvish isn’t about to blame his struggles in the 2017 World Series on the Astros stealing his signs. That doesn’t mean he agrees with the notion he was tipping his pitches, however.

Tuesday, The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported the Astros stole signs electronically in 2017, the season they won the World Series. Although sign stealing in baseball is nothing new, doing so with a video camera posted up in center field, fixated on the opposing team’s catchers, crosses a line.

Former MLB infielder Trevor Ploufee also reported the Astros stole signs and described the system in a series of tweets:

Darvish – who was pitching for the Dodgers at the time – infamously struggled in the 2017 Fall Classic. He allowed nine runs in 3 1/3 innings across two starts: Game 3 in Houston and Game 7 in Los Angeles. He allowed five runs in 1 2/3 innings in the latter, a 5-1 Astros series-clinching win.

Darvish’s World Series struggles were initially attributed to him tipping his pitches. He weighed in on the topic on Thursday, posting a video to his YouTube channel where he disagrees with the notion he gave off signals to Astros hitters. He speaks in Japanese in the video, but one Reddit user translated what the right-hander said.

Some of the more interesting points:

On whether the Astros were stealing signs or not

But personally, Game 7 was played at Dodgers Stadium. Since what we currently know is limited to Minute Maid Park, I don’t think there were any signs stealings going on at that game. However, with the technology that they have, I really think it’s not impossible that they’ve done it at LA as well.

On the notion that he was tipping his pitches

After Game 7, there were news about how I was tipping my pitches. After the World Series ended, I personally asked a player from the Astros about it. He said that I was fumbling my ball before I threw my fastball. After Game 3, the Dodgers suspected that I was tipping my pitches, and I reviewed some footage with some people. I reviewed my mechanics from that footage, but we all couldn’t find any noticeable signs that I was giving something away. During Game 7, I was really aware and concerned about this, so I made extra sure on the mound that I wasn’t giving anything away.

After Game 7, I’ve been personally trying to get to the bottom of this problem. This year, from a source from the Astros that I won’t disclose, I was told that I was tipping my pitches during Game 3 and 7 by fumbling my ball before my windup. Since I saw my Game 7 footage numerous times, I was convinced that I wasn’t doing that, and there was something in the back of my mind that didn’t mesh well with what that player was saying, and what was shown on the footage.

Two things off these comments:

-Dodgers president Andrew Friedman noted Tuesday at the GM Meetings that one Los Angeles player, who was good at picking up pitch-tipping (reportedly second baseman Chase Utley), studied Darvish’s World Series starts. Utley said Darvish was not tipping his pitches:

-A’s pitcher Mike Fiers – who was with the Astros from 2015-17 – told Rosenthal and Drellich that Houston had a camera positioned in the outfield at home games. Whether they also had a system setup on the road is unknown at this time (such as Game 7), but Darvish (and the Dodgers, at the time) seem adamant that he wasn’t tipping his pitches.

But even if they did steal signs, Darvish doesn’t blame the Astros on him pitching poorly in the World Series:

Now, do I think that my failure in the 2017 World Series is because of the Astros stealing signs? I don’t think so, I think Astros have talented players. Results don’t change, and I don’t expect anyone to send me apologies for what they had said to me for the past two years. Through adversity, I’ve been able to work hard and play for a great organization, the Cubs. If I start associating my failure to the Astros scandal, I don’t think that I would be able to develop as a person. I think adversity is important in life, and I think these types of failures will be an important experience for me, as a player. I’m willing to swallow the results of 2017.

It's nice to see Darvish has moved forward; he had a stellar second half in 2019 and will open the 2020 season as the Cubs top starting pitcher. However, he had a tough time dealing with backlash from Dodgers fans, and the Astros cheating may have cost him in free agency. The Cubs signed Darvish to a lucrative six-year, $126 million deal, but he may have gotten more, if not for his poor World Series showing. Plus, he remained on the open market until February 2018.

On possibly using racist remarks to steal signs

I’ve read and heard articles and reports that players were stealing signs by saying racist remarks. During the 2017 World Series, [Yuli] Gurriel did a racial gesture after he hit a home run off of me. I don’t really care, but if he did that knowing about the signs, I think that puts that problem in an entirely different light.

Gurriel hit a home run off Darvish in Game 3, doing a racist gesture after returning to the Astros dugout. He was suspended five games to start the 2018 season as a result, avoiding a ban from the World Series. The gesture was extremely problematic in its own right. If Gurriel did it to convey stolen signs and/or to openly mock Darvish for knowing his signs? Brutal.

Darvish also noticed some strange tendencies from opposing hitters when he was on the mound in 2019:

Especially this year, I've noticed a lot weird things. When I’m in the set position, usually the batter looks at me. It depends on the batter, but they generally look at my elbows, my eyes, my shoulders, you know it. But several times this year, I’ve noticed that the batters don’t look at me. Even without runners on second, I see players just looking into the distance, around left center field. It’s awkward. This usually happens when we’re the visiting team. I’ve even told [Cubs catcher Victor Caratini] during mound visits that the batters eyes were not on me.

According to Cardinals beat writer Jeff Jones, the Brewers and Rangers are egregious with electronic sign stealing as well, though there’s no word if MLB is investigating them.

Brett Taylor from Bleacher Nation found a clip of a Christian Yelich at-bat vs. Darvish from 2019. The camera angle is off-centered, but it shows Yelich – who stares at Darvish for several seconds – look towards left-center field (where the Brewers bullpen is located) before looking back at Darvish.

Darvish acknowledged that he wasn't sure of Yelich's intentions, but he stepped off when Yelich's eyes moved. He added this doesn't mean Milwaukee was stealing signs, though Yelich may not have seen that tweet...

Darvish had one final PSA to MLB about cheating:

So, um, let’s stop sign stealing. What’s fun about swinging at something that you know that’s coming? I wonder if the batters are actually happy with that. If Houston was actually content with winning the World Series knowing that they were stealing signs electronically... I don’t know, I wouldn't be able to do that as a player if I’m in their shoes. It’s very disappointing.

Well said, Yu. What comes next is to be determined, but Cubs president Theo Epstein pointed out the magnitude of the situation at the GM Meetings.

"Certainly not something to be swept under the rug," said Epstein, who initially admitted it's best for teams not to comment while MLB is looking into the matter. "It needs to be fully investigated and bring light to it and I'm sure there will be appropriate action taken."

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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