“I’m kind of turning into a broken record.”
That’s what Joe Maddon had to say about Jake Arrieta’s start against the Reds Monday night and the command issues that have plagued the reigning NL Cy Young award winner for about a month now (Cubs.com).
After lasting no more than 5.0 innings only twice in 2015, Arrieta has now failed to reach the sixth inning six times in 2016, including four of his last seven tries. The reason for the short outings, however, has at least as much to do with his inefficiency (pitch count) as it does with the actual production. And, of course, the pitch count isn’t being helped by the increasing number of walks.
And now I can share Maddon’s sentiment.
After his last start, Arrieta commented on some impending adjustments to his approach that were meant to help him become more efficient early on. In short, Arrieta hoped to attack the zone early in the count, to get ahead of the batters that had been waiting on his pitches and taking more and more walks in the process. While the strategy is sound (and continues to be the path forward), it seems that Arrieta has had some trouble with the execution.
Indeed, Arrieta’s final line yesterday (5 IP, 5ER, 4H, 5BB, 4K) was decidedly un-Arrieta-like. But, it’s not the hits or the runs that concern me (or him, for that matter). As Arrieta correctly pointed out after the game, it’s not like he’s being knocked all over the yard. Anyone can leave a pitch up in the zone and Joey Votto can take anyone deep. It happens, and, in isolation, is not troubling.
But the five walks and increasingly elusive command … well that is quite troubling, especially when it’s become part of a trend.
“Five walks, and four of them scored,” Arrieta said Monday night, per the Tribune, calling himself his own worst enemy. Arrieta walked five batters yesterday and has now walked four or more batters in six starts this season. For comparison’s sake, Arrieta’s walk rate in 2016 (9.8%) is nearly double what it was last season (5.5%), despite exactly equal K rates (27.1%). What’s strange – or rather, frustrating – is that the lack of command is so clearly the root of his struggles. Check out the similarities between some of his other important pitching stats from his Cy Young season in 2015, compared to his results this year:
2015 Jake Arrieta
- K-rate: 27.1%
- BB-rate: 5.5%
- AVG: .184
- BABIP: .246
- LOB%: 80.0%
- HR/9: 0.39
- GB%: 56.2%
2016 Jake Arrieta
- K-rate: 27.1%
- BB-rate: 9.8%
- AVG: .177
- BABIP: .242
- LOB%: 80.1%
- HR/9: 0.35
- GB%: 55.3%
If you’re squinting to find the differences, you’ve understood my point.
In nearly every other way (including velocity and health, but we know those aren’t issues), Jake Arrieta is the same pitcher he was last year. He’s getting the same number of strikeouts, allowing the same number of hits, stranding the same number of runners, allowing the same number of homers, getting the same number of grounders … but he’s walking nearly twice as many people (on a rate basis). It’s nice to know what the problem is, because that makes it easier to focus in on and address, but it’s frustrating because the one singular problem that is derailing his ability to dominate is staring us right in the face.
But things don’t usually last long when they stare Jake Arrieta in the face, and I’m guessing this is something he’ll overcome, as well. “When I see guys autotake the first pitch, and I’m out of the strike zone, that’s what I put the emphasis on,” Arrieta said, per Cubs.com, adding that he needs to get back to the basics and just get a better command of the strike-zone. He’ll stop worrying about going in and out and up and down, and work on reestablishing an aggressive approach in every single at-bat.
Like usual, his manager isn’t concerned. According to Joe Maddon, Arrieta’s struggles are just a feel thing. He believes that there will be that “light-bulb moment,” where something clicks and Arrieta snaps right back into his usual self. According to Arrieta, it’s all about the timing. If he can figure out how to nail down his timing, his command will reappear and the results will follow.* But be it timing, feel or both, once Arrieta reestablishes his fastball command, everything else will fall into place.
If you recall, fastball command was among the primary reasons for Arrieta’s career revival in Chicago in the first place. His stuff has always been nasty – even when he was struggling in Baltimore – but batters don’t have to worry about the nastiness if there isn’t a well-located fastball to challenge them in the zone. Laying off pitch after pitch, drawing walk after walk saps Arrieta of his effectiveness and that’s – to an extent – what batters are doing to him right now. Attack early, attack often, and then you can go out of the zone to make batters look silly.
I’m guessing more than one article around the interwebz today will end their version of this very Arrieta article the same way I’m about to, but the pull is just too strong. I don’t blame them like I don’t blame myself. But for some added fun and variety, let’s read the remaining few sentences like a 1940s newsman, see?
Well listen folks, even though Mr. Arrieta didn’t contribute on the mound in his usual fashion, he did help out at the plate. Stepping in three times yesterday against the Reds from Cincinnati, Arrieta had two hits, including a titanic 381-foot home run off of a 99mph heater.
Sit back, peel your eyes, and take a gander at what an all-round baseball player looks like:
*(Arrieta’s struggles with timing are a great example of why Willson Contreras may not be ready for a full-time gig behind the plate quite yet. Asking Contreras to help fix those issues, while learning the position/staff, and catching all of the nastiness, is far too tall an ask. It’s a separate issue altogether, but an important one that came to mind.)