Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

jake arrieta vintage

Late last week, we took a look at John Lackey’s season (as a whole) and questioned whether or not the Cubs got their money’s worth (spoiler: yes they did).

Now, I’d like to do the same with Jake Arrieta … sorta.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Cubs “got their money’s worth” for Arrieta this season (both in what they paid in players to acquire him a few years ago and what his salary has been since). Putting it simply, Arrieta was an extremely valuable member of an excellent Cubs rotation. There’s no debate, and we touch on that quite a bit more at the end of this post.

But there’s also no debate that, at times this year, he was a bit off.

And although it might feel a bit icky to pick apart a Cubs starter’s season that was worth roughly 4.0 WAR, with 18 wins, a 3.10 ERA, a no-hitter, and just barely under 200 innings pitched, that’s what we’re going to do.

Arrieta set the bar impossibly high for himself after his 2014 and 2015 seasons, and he didn’t quite reach the same heights in 2016, at least in the second half.

Because his year was really a tale of two Jakes, wasn’t it?

Coming into the season as the reigning NL Cy Young champion, Arrieta was expected to navigate the Cubs through one of their most anticipated seasons ever. And for a short while, that’s exactly what he did. Through his first nine starts (May 20th), Arrieta had a brilliant 1.29 ERA (2.56 FIP) with a 26.7% strikeout rate and an uncharacteristically high, but certainly manageable, 8.5% walk rate.

In fact, through the entire first half of 2016, Jake Arrieta was mostly pitching like the ace he had blossomed into over the previous two years. His production wasn’t quite up to his historic second half run in 2015, but that was, well, historic – so I think we can give him a break.

By the time the All-Star break happened, Jake Arrieta’s line was still quite good and featured his second career no-hitter (less than ten starts removed from his first one in 2015):

Jake Arrieta First Half 2016: 114.1 IP2.68 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 3.37 xFIP, 26.1% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate, .196 AVG against.

Not bad at all. If you had the opportunity to lock in that level of production over the second half of the season, you would do it in a heartbeat, even if Arrieta always has/had the potential to do much better.

Of course, the second half went very differently. Here are those same numbers from above, next to his numbers in the second half:

Jake Arrieta First Half 2016: 114.1 IP2.68 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 3.37 xFIP, 26.1% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate, .196 AVG against.

Jake Arrieta Second Half 2016: 83.0 IP, 3.69 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 4.11 xFIP, 20.9% strikeout rate, 10.0% walk rate, .190 AVG against.

As you can see, the second half of 2016 was dinged by control/command issues – which hurt Arrieta in several different ways. First, and most obviously, his inability to consistently keep his pitches in the zone forced his walk rate to shoot up, and dropped his strikeout rate precipitously. After already posting a worse than average 9.3% walk rate in the first half, Arrieta lost control further in the second half driving the surprisingly high FIP and xFIP (for reference, his walk rate was 5.5% in 2015). No matter how good you are, a walk rate at or above 10.0% is going to limit your ability to produce at an elite level.

But a lack of command can hurt a pitcher in more ways than simply allowing more walks. The lack of command forced many deeper counts (many of which ended in walks), which forced his pitch count up early. Although the plan was to generally ease up on Arrieta throughout the season (vis a vis 2015), it was supposed to be deliberate, not a side effect of high pitch counts early in games. As a telltale example, Arrieta failed to pitch six full innings just 3 times out of 33 regular season starts  in 2015 (9.1%). This season, he failed to reach that mark 11 times out of 31 starts (35.5%).

But a lack of control wasn’t the only thing holding Arrieta back this year; a lack of command hurt as well. Much of Arrieta’s success in 2014-2015 was attributable to his newfound ability to command his fastball with aplomb. When his fastball can be pinpointed at any point in an at-bat, opposing hitters have to respect his absolutely filthy secondary pitches a lot more – a compounding benefit or detriment. As soon as he loses command, however, batters can pick and choose which types of pitches they want to sit on, because they’re less fearful that the pitch will stay in the zone as a strike.

Lastly, when the command is off, a pitcher can miss his spots in a way that makes him all the more hittable (especially if he’s already behind in the count). It’s no surprise, then, that batters slugged more against every type of pitch this year except Arrieta’s little-used four-seamer.

You’ll notice that Arrieta had plenty of really fantastic games this season, and almost every single one of them was due to the fact that (on that particular night) he commanded his fastball well. Even still, the overall numbers (according to Brooks Baseball) are plenty telling:

Arrieta’s Fastball Ball Rate in 2015:

  • Four-seamer: 40.23%
  • Two-seamer: 32.79%

Arrieta’s Fastball Ball Rate in 2016:

  • Four-seamer: 41.89% (+1.66 percentage points)
  • Two-seamer: 34.79% (+2.00 percentage points)

His fastballs were thrown for balls a combined 3.66 percentage points more in 2016 than they were in 2015. Worse, presumably because he was not able to command his arsenal as well, he had to rely on the fastballs much more in 2016 than in 2015 (again, via Brooks):

Arrieta’s Fastball Usage Rate in 2015:

  • Four-seamer: 7.43%
  • Two-seamer: 43.63%

Arrieta’s Fastball Usage Rate in 2016:

  • Four-seamer: 4.75% (-2.68 percentage points)
  • Two-seamer: 60.90% (+17.27 percentage points)

While there were likely other contributing factors, all of this hints at overall command troubles as the primary driver of worsened production, longer outings, and more walks for Arrieta in 2016.

… But come on. It’s still Jake Arrieta and the dude can legitimately dominate any lineup in baseball on any given night. Check out his overall 2016 stats compared to some of the other qualified pitchers in baseball.

Jake Arrieta in 2016, By the Numbers (NL, MLB):

  • Innings Pitched: 197.1 (8th, 22nd)
  • ERA: 3.10 (10th, 13th)
  • FIP: 3.52 (8th, 13th)
  • xFIP: 3.68 (10th, 18th)
  • K-rate: 23.9% (10th, 18th)
  • BB-rate: 9.6% (27th, 66th)
  • AVG Against: .194 (1st, 1st)
  • fWAR: 3.8 (8th, 16th)

By the measures included above (besides walk rate, which …. eek), Arrieta was one of the top ten pitchers in the National League and likely a top 20 pitcher in all of baseball.

Even when he wasn’t quite commanding his arsenal at his best, batters still found him hard to square up (4th best soft hit rate, 3rd best hard hit rate) and hit only .194 (best in MLB) off him the whole season. The Cubs’ historically good defense played a role in that, but make no mistake, Arrieta is not an easy pitcher to hit.

In the end, Arrieta stayed healthy, pitched well, and was a huge part of why the Cubs are where they are. With the postseason looming, we can’t be sure which Arrieta we’ll get, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

And hey … he’ll be on the Cubs in 2017, too. I wouldn’t bet against him then, either.

Brett Taylor contributed to this post.

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