Armed with a new pitch and pregame superstition, Yu Darvish keeps rolling

Armed with a new pitch and pregame superstition, Yu Darvish keeps rolling

If you see Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy running around in the outfield on the days Yu Darvish starts, it's not because he's trying to put out fires or urgently rushing a scouting report to somebody.

It's because Darvish asked him to join the pregame running routine.

A few starts back, Darvish asked personal catcher Victor Caratini to join in on the pitcher's standard warm-up run ahead of his starts. That developed into asking Hottovy to join along before Darvish's last start at Wrigley Field.

Maybe the next step is asking catching/strategy coordinator Mike Borzello or manager Joe Maddon to join the pre-start run. By the end of the year, the entire Cubs team might be out there. 

"We just go out there and it's time for us to relax," Caratini said. "We talk about anything other than baseball. Just take it easy, have a few minutes to ourselves to talk and get to know each other a little bit better. 

"I think one of the things that for him, when he doesn't feel the pressure of the game, that's when you see him at his best. It's just a matter of him being relaxed and I think you can tell that by his last few outings."

Whatever it is, it's clearly working for Darvish. He spun another gem Tuesday night in New York, playing stopper with 8 innings of 1-run ball in a game his team badly needed to win. It was his longest outing in a Cubs uniform and quite possibly his best start during his historic streak.

The last few outings for Darvish hasn't just displayed comfort — it's shown fans something they've never seen before. Since at least 1893, no pitcher in Major League Baseball history has ever had five consecutive starts without walking a batter while striking out at least 8 guys each time out.

That streak ended Tuesday when Darvish walked Todd Frazier to begin the fifth inning, but he still had one of the best Augusts the game has ever seen:

Couple that with the fact Darvish struggled mightily with his control earlier in the season and it's a mind-boggling turnaround for the 33-year-old right-hander who has really come into his own in his second season with the Cubs.

All those strikeouts and lack of free passes has typically led to a bunch of success for Darvish in his overall box score, but last week, he was tagged for 7 runs (6 earned) in 5.1 innings because he gave up 4 homers to the Giants on a humid night at Wrigley.

He also confused Statcast to some extent because he suddenly whipped a brand new pitch out of his toolbelt.

Entering the start against a San Francisco lineup packed with lefties, Darvish and the Cubs decided to mess around with a knuckle curveball — a pitch he hadn't thrown yet in 2019. 

The idea was to give the Giants hitters a different look, as the knuckle curve has more of a straight drop (imagine 12-to-6 on a clock) compared to his regular curveball that is essentially a 1-7 drop that more closely resembles his slider. 

Darvish's knuckle curve has tighter movement and a tick up in velocity, so the Cubs thought it could be a more efficient breaking ball for him in some ways.

So he was playing catch with it prior to his last start as he warmed up in the Wrigley outfield grass and bullpen and decided to take it into the game.

"After we saw some of the swings we got on it early, it just became more a part of the gameplan," Hottovy said. "A testament to him, who hasn't thrown that pitch all year. He'll throw his curveball, he'll throw his slider, he can manipulate the baseball in many ways. Just adding that [knuckle curve] that got him the velocity he wanted and the right movement he wanted for that particularly lineup, so that's the cool thing.

"He knows it's available to him anytime he needs it now."

He said he got two strikeouts on that knuckle curve Tuesday night:

So that means Darvish's pitch repertoire now includes:

4-seam fastball
2-seam fastball
Cutter
Split-finger
Slider
Curveball
Knuckle curve

Cartini's going to run out of fingers...

Imagine being a hitter in the box and trying to guess which pitch is coming in which spot. 

Oh yeah, and he's throwing all of those pitches for strikes right now.

"He's got an amazing ability to command his breaking ball," Maddon said. "It's incredible. ... He's got an incredible command of a variety of different pitches. I don't know if I've ever witnessed — we've seen Jake Arrieta's [2015] season, beautiful — but I'm just talking about purely commanding a baseball and being inventive.

"He's able to manipulate his hand and his arm in a way that most guys cannot. He's just a different level of talent."

Former Cubs starter Jake Arrieta on Todd Frazier 'I’ll put a dent in his skull'

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USA TODAY

Former Cubs starter Jake Arrieta on Todd Frazier 'I’ll put a dent in his skull'

Tensions were high in Saturday's Philles-Mets game in New York.

Former Cub and current Phillies starting pitcher Jake Arrieta had a rough outing, allowing five earned runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings. Arrieta also hit three batters, including former White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier. Frazier had a few words for Arrieta after getting hit, as did Arrieta for Frazier after the game, a 6-5 Mets win.

Yikes. Frazier left the ballpark before he was able to reply to Arrieta's comment, though he responded ahead of Sunday's game.

Arrieta is also reportedly dealing with a bone spur in his elbow, which might explain his rough outing.

Read all about the incident here.

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Hats to the left: Appreciating Pedro Strop's Cubs career on his 34th birthday

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USA TODAY

Hats to the left: Appreciating Pedro Strop's Cubs career on his 34th birthday

It can only mean one thing: Pedro Strop is making his way to the mound.

The actual measurement of the degree of rotation is a closely guarded secret (which is the fancy way of me saying I’ve never asked him), though I’d estimate it at about 30 degrees.

The Cubs’ crooked-cap wearing reliever turns 34 years old today. Let’s appreciate him.

He was originally acquired on July 2, 2013, with Jake Arrieta from the Orioles in exchange for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger.

Feldman was the biggest impact name in the trade at the time. The 47-36 Orioles were looking to fortify their rotation; the 35-45 Cubs were looking to cash in on a solid start by Feldman, who posted a 3.46 ERA in 15 starts (including a 12-strikeout masterpiece against the Padres on May 1).

Arrieta was once a top-100 prospect (No. 99 on the 2010 Baseball America list), but had floundered to a 5.46 ERA for the orange birds. When he reached Chicago, things changed quickly, and all of a sudden Arrieta’s name was synonymous with a husky right-hander who pitched his last game in 1911 - Cy Young. Arrieta took home the Cy Young award in 2015, posting a 1.77 ERA (including 0.75 after the All-Star break).

Every start sent me scrambling to Baseball-Reference to frame his latest start in some unfathomable historical perspective. In the 2015 Wild Card game, the Pittsburgh crowd greeted Arrieta with a stadium-wide blackout, but it was the Pirates who were blacked out after the smoke cleared. Arrieta left the Steel City as the only pitcher in postseason history to toss a shutout with 10+ strikeouts and no walks. The next season, he was an All-Star and a key member of the World Series champion rotation.

He was solid in 2017, but not quite what he had been the previous few seasons. Then he hit free agency and left for Philadelphia.

So he’s gone. But Pedro Strop is still here.

Maybe he didn’t have the meteoric rise of a Jake Arrieta, but that’s okay. He started out excellent and stayed that way.

Pedro Strop with Cubs

  ERA WHIP K% OppBA
2013 2.83 0.943 29.4 percent  .176
2014 2.21 1.066 29.1 percent .187
2015 2.91 1.000 30 percent .167
2016 2.85 0.887 32.1percent .163
2017 2.83 1.117 26 percent .206
2018 2.26 0.989 23.8 percent .179

Entering Thursday's game against the Dodgers, Strop holds a 4.85 ERA, but if you look at everything else – same hits per nine innings of about 5 1/2. His strikeout rate is about one per inning, while his WHIP is at an even 1.000. When it’s all said and done, he’ll be right where he always ends up.

He's already fourth in franchise history with 376 career relief appearances, one of eight Cubs ever to relieve 300 times or more.

If you were to sort those Cubs with 300+ relief appearances by ERA+ - which is ERA adjusted for league and ballpark on a scale of 100 (101 is one percent above league average, 110 is 10 percent above league average, 99 is one percent below league average, 90 is ten percent below league average, etc.) - Strop is second only to Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter.

Cubs with at least 300 relief apperances sorted by ERA+

  ERA+
Bruce Sutter 171
Pedro Strop 150
Lee Smith 134
Carlos Marmol 124
Willie Hernandez 107
Don Elston 106
James Russell 99
Kyle Farnsworth 92

Sutter, Strop, Smith and Marmol are clearly the top four of the group. Let’s dig in on those four.

Career with Cubs

  ERA+ Innings K% BB% WHIP OppBA OppOBP OppSLG
Bruce Sutter 171 493 24.9 7.5 1.055 .208 .269 .299
Pedro Strop 150 344 1/3 28.1 9.5 1.019 .181 .273 .280
Lee Smith 134 681 1/3 22.8 9.3 1.255 .237 .309 .328
Carlos Marmol 124 542 1/3 29.8 15.5 1.329 .185 .329 .301

It’s Sutter, Strop and Smith. I’ll give Sutter and Smith a little extra credit because they routinely worked longer outings. Marmol walked too many to be in the same class.

Besides being one of the top relievers in Cubs history, Strop has been one of the best in baseball since being acquired by the Cubs (July 3, 2013 to present).

Pedro Strop MLB ranks July 3, 2013 to present

Among 149 pitchers with 200+ relief appearances over that span

Opponent batting average .181 5th
Opponent OBP .273 16th
Opponent SLG .280 5th
WHIP 1.019 10th

Perhaps he doesn’t get the same attention as other relievers because he doesn’t dominate the save column, but it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been one of the more valuable relievers in the game.

Also, Strop has made three birthday appearances in his career and he tossed a scoreless inning in all three (and his team won all three games).

Turn that hat to the left (exactly how much, I still don’t know, but I intend in finding out), and wish Pedro Strop a happy 34th birthday.

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