If you’ve been reading the reports and watching the video snippets from Mesa, you might think Yu Darvish looks like a new man. He’s smiling more and even his body language is more relaxed as he tosses off one-liners with the ease of Javy Báez spitting out sunflower shells. That’s carried over to the mound as well, where Darvish is hitting 97 mph and remarking that his stuff is better than ever.
“He’s been almost a different person this year,” Joe Maddon told Patrick Mooney Friday. “We all know him. He knows us better. Definitely the self-confidence level seems to be soaring a bit right now. I just think the familiarity with the whole group matters to him, plus he’s healthy. All those factors are pointing the needle in the right direction right now.”
Perhaps the most obvious sign of these changes is Darvish’s decision to forego an interpreter this season, which he joked with reporters was about saving the organization some money. He had displayed that same acerbic wit on social media during his free agency period, which had many fans almost as excited about his personality as they were his pitching.
But as the season got underway, it was quickly apparent that Darvish wasn’t going to be as advertised. Some attributed that to the pressure of pitching in Chicago, drawing from a dogged narrative that the talented righty is mentally weak. And while he’s admitted to feeling the pressure, something even the stoic Jon Lester has dealt with openly, the biggest issue was an elbow injury that prevented Darvish from ever getting on track last season.
Not only did a stress reaction cause intense pain that sapped his velocity, it infiltrated his mind and robbed him of his confidence. Anyone who’s had an undiagnosed injury or illness can understand that despair, how the not knowing eats at you and grinds you down. Darvish tried to pitch through it with no answers, only finding out in late August what was really causing his problems.
All the while, his disappointing performance with the Dodgers in the previous season’s World Series haunted him. Darvish carried that with him to Chicago, where his own self-doubt was only compounded by his slow start in a Cubs uniform.
“More than the bad things that were said about me, what I regret is that I couldn’t repay those people,” Darvish told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times when he returned to LA to face the Dodgers last June.
Darvish said he planned to remain in the dugout or maybe even the clubhouse so fans couldn’t see him. He knew what the response would be and wanted to avoid it, even if he understood why fans would boo him.
“When people boo you, they’re telling you, ‘We don’t like you,’” he said. “It’s not a good feeling to get that from the fans of an organization you respect so much.”
Former Cubs catcher Chris Gimenez, who was brought to Chicago ostensibly because of his rapport with Darvish, didn’t help matters with his ill-advised comments to Steve Greenberg of the Sun-Times. Rather than offer more context for his friend’s behavior and thought process, the catcher basically hucked Darvish in front of an oncoming bus.
“I think he thinks that Chicago hates him for going on the DL a couple of times,” Gimenez said in a fit of transparency that probably never should have been shared on the record.
That’s more talking than he was able to do with his bat last season, which, combined with the lack of need to serve as Darvish’s caddie, is why Gimenez wasn’t long for the Cubs. But the real problem with what Gimenez said, and even with what much of Darvish himself had shared prior to this season, is that it lacked the fidelity of a direct conversation.
The reason “lost in translation” exists as an idiom is because it’s true. When you trying to interpret from one language to another, nuance is the first thing to come out in the wash. So it’s interesting that in that light, the most insightful comments about Darvish last season may have come from Peter Gammons.
“I’m not so sure Yu has quite the same approach [as Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer] and, again, I think it’s self esteem,” Gammons told 670 The Score in late May. “There are times when he pitches, to me, as if he doesn’t want to let people down.
“And you can’t think that way, you have to be…there has to be a little arrogance in you when you go to the mound.”
Nailed it. That’s the difference we’re seeing in Darvish this year, the way he’s carrying himself with a little swagger that says he’s comfortable in his own skin. It’s only spring training and the expectations are muted as a result, but he got the hard stuff out of the way last year. Now that he’s healthy and has gotten to know his teammates, this season should be easy.
And the elbow injury may have been a blessing in disguise for Darvish in that it contributed to the Cubs trading for, and subsequently retaining, Cole Hamels. The two know each other from their days with the Rangers, to the extent that Darvish says they might even be friends.
“He’s my almost best friend. Almost,” Darvish joked with MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “I want to be in the same starting rotation with him. That’s my dream, too.”
As for other former teammates he could face when the Cubs open the season in Texas, Darvish wasn’t quite as kind.
“I want to hit a couple guys,” the big righty said. “(Joey) Gallo and (Rougned) Odor.”
Ouch, shots fired. He’s joking, of course, something you may have gathered is pretty much the default for Darvish. But rather than feeling like a defense mechanism, those who are around him every day say it’s his real personality. The aloof and dispassionate man some saw last season or at other times, that was Darvish keeping his guard up.
So while more than a few fans have expressed a desire to shove Darvish out the door, everything we’ve seen this spring indicates that he’s going to be the one doing the shoving this season. And if he ends up performing as well on the mound as he has in front of the microphones thus far, Darvish is going to be a helluva lot of fun to follow.
And though the response might sound the same as when fans were getting on him, the plan is to change the wording just a tad.
“I don’t want ‘boo’ anymore,” Darvish quipped following his recent simulated game. “I want ‘Yu.’ That’s all I want. I don’t want ‘boo’ anymore.”