Jake Arrieta and the Mystery of the Missing Whiff

jake arrietaJake Arrieta, the primary piece the Cubs acquired from the Orioles in the Scott Feldman trade, is doing fairly well in his extended audition for a 2014 rotation spot. He came in with a leg up, considering that the Cubs appeared to manage Arrieta’s call-up such that they gained an extra year of control and avoided his reaching Super Two status next year. You don’t do that for a guy you don’t expect to be a part of the future in a relatively significant role.

That leg-up has looked justified so far in Arrieta’s time with the Cubs. Watching him pitch, you can easily see why the Orioles dreamed on his stuff for so long. He’s got great velocity, a solid-looking curveball, and a very nice mix of pitches. That includes an 89 mph, late-moving thing that just looks silly good, and not even Dale Sveum knows what to call it. Is it a slider? It’s so fast, and moves later and slightly less than your typical slider. Is it a cutter? Well, the speed says yes, but it moves a hell of a lot more than your typical cutter. All I know is that it’s a nasty, nasty pitch when Arrieta can command it.

Not only does his stuff look fantastic each time out, but he’s posted a 3.77 ERA over five starts and 28.2 innings with the Cubs. He’s allowed just 18 hits in this 28.2 innings, which is incredible.

You know there’s a HOWEVA coming, right?

Here, the howeva is pretty much the story of Arrieta’s career: although he’s seeing nice results so far with the Cubs, he’s doing it with a lot of help behind him. That’s because Arrieta, for all his ridiculous stuff, is striking out just 6.6 per 9, and walking 5.3 per 9. To be sure, the former number is weak (especially for a guy with his apparent stuff), and the latter number is downright bad. It’s a very small sample size with the Cubs, but the K/BB issues hold true for his career: just 6.9 K/9 in the bigs for his career, and a healthy 4.1 BB/9.

Indeed, Arrieta simply doesn’t generate a whole lot of swings and misses. For his career, per FanGraphs, Arrieta’s swinging strike percentage is just 6.8%. For comparison’s sake, that kind of whiff rate would place Arrieta near the bottom of qualifying pitchers in the big leagues this year (Yovani Gallardo is 57th out of 64 qualifying pitchers this year with a 6.7% whiff rate).

When you watch Arrieta, you’d expect him to rack up huge strikeout totals … but he doesn’t. In limited experience viewing him, I struggle to come up with an explanation for the disconnect between what my eyes are telling me, and what the numbers say Arrieta is.

Some of the explanation here could be the control issues (though many pitchers who have control issues still have huge strikeout rates – in fact, that pairing is quite common), though it could more specifically be command issues (the ability to throw particular pitches where you want them, as opposed to the mere ability to throw strikes). Compared to the better pitchers in baseball, Arrieta is outside of the zone far more often, and, when he’s in the strike zone, he generates fewer swings. Fewer overall swings will certainly bring down that whiff rate, but the question here is why. Perhaps because Arrieta is so frequently outside of the zone, hitters are content to see a large number of pitches from Arrieta, not feeling as though they absolutely have to swing early at “their” pitch. That could lead to deeper counts (we’ve seen that), and more compelling pitches in the zone later in an at bat. Not only does that not lead to strikeouts, it could lead to a whole lot of trouble that would bely the raw stuff you see when watching a guy pitch. Supporting this analysis is the contact rate against Arrieta when he does come in the zone: it’s almost 90%, which would again place him near the bottom of the league.

One quick fix could be getting Arrieta to work in the zone earlier in counts (I know, I know – easier said than done). His career first pitch strike percentage – 55.9% – would, you guessed it, be near the bottom of the league this year. When you’re starting out 1-0 almost 45% of the time, big league hitters are going to be plenty content to let you put yourself in a tough spot, forcing you to come at them with juicier pitches later in the at bat. Or they’ll just take their walk, something Arrieta gives them more than 10% of the time.

That all said, maybe the answer here is simply something I don’t see. Maybe Arrieta has a pitch that looks nasty, and velocity that looks good. Other than that, maybe his stuff really isn’t overpowering. I’m no scout, and I won’t pretend to be one here.

To that end, Arrieta himself talks about wanting to be a guy who works down in the zone and lets the batters put the ball in play. With a career BABIP of .289 (lower than average), maybe there’s a justification there (though his career groundball rate is a meh 43.4%). Maybe Arrieta recognizes that success for him in the big leagues, despite how his stuff might appear to us, is going to come from being a contact pitcher. Which, well, he kind of already is, minus the huge number of pitches he throws to get there.

In any case, I trust what I’ve seen from pitching coach Chris Bosio and the rest of the Cubs’ coaching staff when it comes to bringing younger pitchers along (though Arrieta is already 27). After all these years, there probably isn’t an easy fix that allows Arrieta to convert his apparently above average stuff into an above average strikeout rate. And if he’s not going to get a bunch of strikeouts, you might as well see what you can do about making him an innings-eating, high contact type (as it stands, he’s throwing way too many pitches to be that type). Maybe he never becomes a front-of-the-rotation type in that scenario, but at least he could blossom into a consistently effective starter.

Or you could see how he’d do as a high leverage reliever, but we’re not there quite yet.

Brett Taylor is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation, and can also be found as Bleacher Nation on Twitter and on Facebook.

58 responses to “Jake Arrieta and the Mystery of the Missing Whiff”

  1. cms0101

    Does anybody else watch Arrieta’s deliver and immediately think he’s going to have an injury soon? He seems to throw all arm with very little use of his legs. I hope I’m wrong.

    1. cub2014

      His fastball moves so much left to right. He is always behind in
      the count so for right handed hitters when a ball move outside to
      back across the plate its very visable thus very hittable. He has
      thestuff, if he can control that movement and get ahead of hitters
      WOW.

      Just like Shark stuff doesnt alone produce results.

  2. Clark Addison

    The much maligned Andy MacPhail seems to have built a strong foundation in Baltimore, even though he was fired before his guys made it to the show.

    How come he was such a flop with the Cubs?

    1. Spencer

      MacPhail was only GM in Chicago for two years.

      1. Spencer

        Cubs, The Tribune Company owned the Cubs during the time he was CEO, so that probably didn’t help.

    2. King Jeff

      He was president for 4 losing seasons in four years of running things, pulled off two pretty great trades(getting Tillman, Jones, and Hardy), pretty much flopped in free agency and overpaid his own guys on extensions. At least his drafts were better with the Orioles.

      1. Clark Addison

        His biggest mistake was hiring Ed Lynch as GM.

      2. Jay

        He also moved with the speed of a glacier when it came to pulling the trigger on trades during his years with the Cubs.

        1. DocPeterWimsey

          What evidence is there that he took longer than necessary to compete trades?

  3. Polar Bear

    Reading what you have stated above, the one person it reminds me of is Brad Lidge. He had all the tools and even completed a season without blowing a save. But, he always seemed to pitch to contact or could never get that strikeout that he needed. Not that Lidge was horrible. I just remember all those homers he gave up late in games.

    1. bbmoney

      I mean Lidge averaged almost 12K/9 for his career and less than 3 BB/9. He had a couple rough years towards the end, but generally he was pretty good as a RP.

  4. @cubsfantroy

    Arrieta would be the kind of pitcher that would benefit from working with someone like Greg Maddux for a few months. Learn how to truly pitch, not just throw.

    1. CubsFanSaxMan

      I believe it was Maddux who said that the perfect inning was three pitches, thus 27 pitches for the perfect game. The ideal of pitch to contact!!

  5. Spencer

    What’s Arrieta’s FIP with the Cubs?

    1. gocatsgo2003

      FanGraphs has him at a 4.72 FIP and 4.84 xFIP.

      1. jh03

        But that includes his time with the Orioles.

        1. gocatsgo2003

          True, though I’m not sure where to find FIP and xFIP split across the two teams as FanGraphs just lumps them together.

          1. jh03

            I had the same problem. I looked all over the site and couldn’t find it. I bet you could do it if you were a member.

        2. Spencer

          Yeah. Either way, that’s quite unpleasant.

    2. DarthHater

      4.60 with Baltimore, 4.82 with the Cubs

      http://www.baseballprospectus.com/card/card.php?id=52691

      1. Spencer

        Thanks, Darth.

        I think Arrieta’s FIP bears mentioning when talking about Arrieta’s stuff, since Edwin Jackson’s FIP is always discussed on here when talking about Jackson’s stuff.

  6. Steve Ontiveros' Mustache

    Walking 5.3 per 9 is awful. It’s a recipe for disaster. I hope he fixes it.

    But since when did 6.6/9 K become “weak”? Yeesh. Greg Maddux was 6.1/9 for his career and won his first two Cy Young awards with 6.6/9 and 6.7/9. Tim Hudson’s career? 6.1/9. Yes, it would be great if Arrieta’s K’s were more numerous. But I would be thrilled with a BB/9 around 2 and the same K rate. I would call that a heckuva lot better than “weak”.

    1. gocatsgo2003

      I think you were getting at it with your BB/9 comment, but in his Cy Young years Maddux never had a BB/9 over 2.4 and as low as 1.0 (which is… just… so good). The more accurate, or at least more direct, metric would likely be the K/BB ratio, for which Maddux has a 3.37 career number and was between 2.84 and 7.87 in his Cy Young years (which is… just so good… again).

      For comparison’s sake, Arrieta’s career K/BB is 1.69 and 1.24 during his time with the Cubs.

      1. Steve Ontiveros' Mustache

        Agree 100%. The K/BB ratio is FAR more important than K/9 and BB/9. If a starter had a BB/9 of .05, I would be thrilled if the K/9 was 2.0.

        1. Edwin

          Actually, even better than K/BB is K%-BB%.

      2. Edwin

        Interesting thing about Maddux, in 1995 he had a K% of 23.1%, which was the fourth highest in all of baseball. In fact, form 1991-2001, Maddux had a K% around 18%, and had an above league average K% every season except 1999.

        Even though Maddux wasn’t known for it, he was still an above average pitcher at generating strikeouts.

        1. terencemann

          You could easily fill a chapter of a book with the mis-conceptions about Maddux.

  7. jh03

    I really think Arrieta winds up as an impact late-inning reliever in the end.

    1. terencemann

      Agreed. Even when he throws strikes, he’s all over the zone. His ability to command pitches where he wants them to go inside the strike zone appears to be an issue.

  8. cubfanincardinalland

    You can see him get better with his command each start. Strikeouts are highly overrated. Many great starters became their best, when they quit trying to strike out every hitter and make batters hit their pitch.

    1. Edwin

      How exactly are strikeouts overrated? Show me the best pitchers in the game today, and most of them will be “strikeout” pitchers. Strikeouts obviously aren’t the only thing, but I’d say they’re probably tied with BB for most important. It makes no sense to ignore K%, especially when it’s one of the main things holding a guy like Arrieta back from being a good starting pitcher.

      1. mjhurdle

        I would agree that Strikeouts are over-rated.
        That isn’t to say they are not important, but i think that other things are just as, if not more important.
        My example would be Rich Harden. It seemed like every time i watched him, he was striking out 7-8, giving up a long ball or two, and leaving the game with 110 pitches in 5 innings.
        Going deep into a game is, to me, just as important as the strikeouts.
        If you strike every batter out, but you are throwing 30 pitches an inning to get it done, then you never go deep and i would argue that you are not providing the same value as a guy that strike out half the number, but goes 6-7 most games.
        but i admit that i have not dug into the stats on this, so my ‘eye-test’ could be way off.

        1. MoneyBoy

          I agree… Harden is a very good example. It was almost a given there would be that one inning where he’d blow up… and the pitch count was always a problem as well.

          Another point to consider is that w/o a ton of movement, a ML hitter is likely to foul off a bunch of ‘put away’ pitches… adding to the pitch count.

          Add in Arrieta’s control issues… pitch count could continue to be a problem.

          1. John (the other one)

            Strikeouts are boring. And besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls, its more democratic.

            1. TWC

              Heh.

        2. Edwin

          Strikeouts weren’t the only thing that elevated Harden’s pitch count, it was the walks. Fangraphs had an interesting article, sort of related to that line of questioning:

          http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/walks-strikeouts-and-pitch-counts/

          When I look at pitching, the simplest thing to do is to look at K%, BB%, and HR/9. I think all three are all equally important. If a pitcher struggles in one area, they need to make up for it in the other two areas.

          1. mjhurdle

            “When I look at pitching, the simplest thing to do is to look at K%, BB%, and HR/9. I think all three are all equally important.”

            i agree with that. my statement that Strikeouts are over-rated was not meant to diminish the K, but rather a disagreement with the line of thought that, if you K 10 batters a game, you are a great pitcher.
            I would agree that how well a pitcher controls those three areas determines how effective they will be, and excelling in one allows a little more leeway in the others.

            1. ETS

              HR/9 could have a high variance but when you look at it with GO/AO the picture becomes more clear.

              Just look at FIP, xFIP as these calculations are basically summarizing these stats for you in one nice, neat, little package.

      2. Patrick W.

        Not to mention that a strikeout means no home run and no 30% chance of a hit on a batted ball.

      3. jt

        At Baseball Ref I sorted 2013 ML pitchers by K/9 and found 13 guys with ( I guess ) at least 140 IP , a K/9 or < 7 and an ERA of < 3.60. Add 6 more with a K/9 <= 7.5.

  9. CubFan Paul

    His movement is plus stuff. He would be a better pitcher with an automated strikezone.

    Balls and Strikes should be included next year. So much for the testing they did in New York. I’d bet the Umpires are on a short leash til the CBA expires.

  10. jt

    Juan Marichal career K/9 = 5.9
    Warren Spahn K/9 = 4.4
    Whitey Ford K/9 = 5.6
    Hitters are bigger. Parks are smaller
    There was the steroid thing.
    There WAS the steroid thing.
    trends come and trends go
    that is why they are trends.

    1. hansman1982

      You do realize they played in a completely different era, right?

      Christ, there was a guy on the ’72 Cubs that had a 4% K rate and the highest was still below what is considered average today.

      1. jt

        Not only do I realize they played in a different era, I referenced that fact.
        But do you realize that the post steroid era is a different era than the steroid era.
        Pitchers were chosen and trained to zip the ball past guys a lot of guys artificially built to hit the ball 5% further than players of yore. That is no longer the case. The parks are smaller so maybe the need for the K has yet to be decreased. But then again, perhaps there is now room in the game for the ground ball pitcher with a higher WHIP due to a higher BAbip but also having a lower SLG against. Dunno! Eras change and when they do so does the strategic outlook.

  11. Matt

    I don’t want to sound… jerk-y but I really don’t understand where your mystery and confusing surrounding Arrieta’s K issues is coming from. It’s completely self-evident. Or maybe because I was a pitcher it is to me…?

    It’s grossly obvious that he has control issues that have torpedoed his career (to this point) as an effective starter. With a guy like him, a fool can sit back and wait til he’s down 2-0 or 3-1 and sit dead-red on a fastball. It’s not really rocket science with this guy. The chances he’s going to be in a pitcher’s count are pretty slim, when you have a tremendous advantage over the hitter and having them guessing, and swinging and missing far more. Any MLB hitter can hit an 98 MPH fastball if they know it’s coming.

    1. TWC

      Crikey, another amateur pitcher allows himself a moment to condescend and explain to us unwashed masses how *real* pitchers see the world. Glad you’ve made time for us, kid. Have you met Fastball?

      It’s “grossly obvious” that you didn’t comprehend the article above, as the eighth and ninth paragraphs are a much more articulate elucidation of what you wrote in your second, but without the patronizing tone.

    2. jt

      Arrieta has pitched 5 games for The Cubs; 3 solid starts, 2 turkeys.
      He 19.6 IP with an avg pitch count of 15.6/IP in the solid and 9IP with an avg pitch count of 21 in the turkeys. 15.6 pitches per IP will get 6.4 IP per a 100 pitch game.
      It is not that the batters are not trying to wait for the meatball when he is good. It is more like they are not hitting one. That may well be because a meatball is not to be found when Arrieta is on his game. There does not seem to be anything wrong with his game when he is locating. I just think he has to get the location thing going in 80% of his games rather than 60%.

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