At this point last season – or in other words, through Jake Arrieta’s first 15 starts in 2015 – Arrieta had thrown the exact same number of innings, in the same number of games as he has here in 2016.
Which seems surprising.
Although Arrieta has had the results this year (1.74 ERA) and even the peripherals (2.50 FIP), to suggest that he has been better to date in 2016 than he was in 2015, it sure doesn’t feel like that, does it? Of course, our memory is at least a little bit clouded by the dominant, dominant, dominant second half of 2015, but still, something about Arrieta just seems off. Again, he’s not allowing many runs to score, he’s got a better groundball rate and he’s still inducing an extreme amount of weak contact, but something seems … off.
Well, at least one obvious thing is his recent streak of laborious and short outings.
In 2016, Arrieta has failed to go more than 5.0 innings a total of five times through his first 15 starts. He did that only twice in all of 2015. There are a few reasons for the higher pitch count and lower inning totals – like the fact that Arrieta is striking out more batters this year, while also walking more – but instead of guessing what’s happening and how he can fix it, let’s hear it from the man himself.
In a series of post-game comments (that you can read at Cubs.com and The Athletic) Jake Arrieta, his catcher Miguel Montero, and his manager Joe Maddon addressed the recent loss against the Cardinals and Arrieta’s proclivity for relatively short outings in 2016. In short, adjustments are coming.
Arrieta is not only a hard working and talented pitcher, he’s also a smart one. He’s not the type of guy who is too prideful to ignore the necessity of adjustments, so adjustments are what he’s going to make. However, whenever a player starts to talk about making adjustments – particularly to their delivery or mechanics – I get at least a little bit nervous. Sometimes, those types of adjustments can throw something else off or result in unforeseen consequences. Thankfully, those are not the type of adjustments he intends on making.
Instead, Arrieta plans to make changes in his approach, specifically, by attacking the zone earlier in the count. According to Montero, the Cardinals were able to chase Arrieta out of the game by the fifth inning yesterday, because of their ability to lay off pitches early in the at-bat and make Arrieta work longer for each out (a strategy the 2015 Cubs mastered). But apparently, this is nothing new. According to Arrieta, the war of attrition has been an approach he’s seen each of his “last few times out.” It’s the type of approach that sometimes allows him to rack up the strikeouts (hence the still solid FIP), but also one that results in far too many walks and an extremely elevated pitch count.
Joe Maddon believes that attacking earlier will work for Arrieta, as long as he can really command his fastball. “He just has to get back to fastballs going where he wants to and once he does, it’ll be back to the same as last year.” How? Well, according to Maddon, a better commanded fastball, will lead to more pitcher friendly counts which will allow Arrieta’s slider to be a more effective chase pitch. Indeed, if you recall, one of the earliest reasons Arrieta gave for his career revival with the Cubs back in 2014, was the improved command of his fastball. The fastball sets up the rest of the pitches, making Arrieta’s command crucial to his overall success. Once he starts commanding his fastball, his slider will become more effective, his pitch count will come down and he’ll be right back to lasting 7.0, 8.0 and 9.0 innings.
For his part, Arrieta essentially offered a challenge to future hitters (The Athletic): “[B]eing more aggressive early, putting the hitter in a hole versus being in 1-0, 2-0 counts. That’s what they want, they’re taking first pitch hoping I’m outside of the strike zone. So I’ll adjust accordingly …. [I]t’s not a bad problem to have; guys up there standing with their bats on their shoulders early in the count. That’s gonna favor me going forward.”
In other words, in addition to commanding that fastball more, Arrieta’s gonna be in the zone early more often, and if hitters want to go down in the count early, they can take the pitches. Otherwise, try to hit it early against one of the hardest-to-hit-hart pitchers in baseball. In theory, it could dramatically improve Arrieta’s efficiency.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.