Jake Arrieta talked about his outing yesterday here at Cubs.com, and it should probably strike you as very similar to things we heard last year in the second half: everything feels good, briefly lost release point, gotta cut down on the walks. Nothing about the outing concerned me, for what it’s worth. So this post is not that. It’s just that his comments got me thinking about some broader things I wanted to discuss in advance of Arrieta’s season.
As we’ve said for several years now, one of the very things that makes Arrieta so hard to hit is his delivery … which is also the thing that makes it very hard for him to keep pristine command throughout a start.
The crossfire delivery – he’s over on the third base side of the rubber, steps at a slight angle away from home plate on his plant foot, and then comes back across his body to deliver the ball – is complicated. It’s hard to pull off successfully in every single repetition (which is probably why the Orioles wanted him to cut it out), and will sometimes yield stretches of erratic command.
But when everything is clicking for Arrieta, well, you have seen the results for yourself. Even last year, when the command was not perfect, the delivery style – coupled, of course, with excellent velocity and nasty stuff – made Arrieta among the most difficult pitchers in baseball to really square up. It’s worth continuing the approach, especially if this is how Arrieta feels most comfortable. I just think everyone will need to accept the reality that, sometimes, he’s gonna lose his command for a stretch – and you just have to hope it’s a matter of a batter or two, and not a month or two.
Which reminds me of something that merits a little discussion in advance of the 2017 season.
For as much attention as Arrieta’s historic second half in 2015 deservedly received, I still think we are probably too quiet on Arrieta’s dicey second half in 2016. In fact, it was longer than just the second half: going back to his June 22 start through the end of the regular season (17 starts), Arrieta posted a 4.31 ERA, a 4.44 FIP, and a 4.23 xFIP over 104.1 innings. His strikeout rate (20.6%) was below league average, and his walk rate (10.4%) was well above league average. The spread between his strikeout rate and walk rate was nearly halved after June 22, from 19.3% (just about top ten in baseball) to 10.2% (way below the league average of 13.0%).
Even on a more granular level, there were alarming signals. Arrieta’s swinging strike rate from June 22 through the end of the regular season was just 9.8%, below league average (10.1%). Before June 22, that number had been a healthy 11.4%, and for all of 2015 it was 11.1%. Even if Arrieta’s game is more about inducing weak contact than getting whiffs, he previously was getting a ton of whiffs – and why wouldn’t he, given his nasty stuff and velocity? But without the ability to effectively locate pitches, the batter’s task of spitting on pitches he’s not going to be able to touch becomes much easier, regardless of the stuff or velocity.
Moreover, Arrieta gave up much more hard contact from June 22 on, and more contact in the air: 27.8% hard contact, 21.0% line drive rate, 30.2% fly ball rate, each up dramatically from his pre-June 22 numbers (21.9%, 17.7%, and 24.8%, respectively). His groundball/fly ball ratio fell like a stone, from 2.32 to just 1.61.
You’re getting the picture.
None of this is to belabor a disappointing second half, or even to suggest that’s who he is now (just as we consistently said after his historic second half of 2015 – it’s fair to expect regression (positive, in this case)). But we can’t ignore a fairly large sample size of struggle, especially when it’s the most recent sample we have.
The good news is that Arrieta was very good in the postseason, and has now had an offseason to rest up. The smart money would be on Arrieta’s 2017 looking like something between his second halves in 2015 and 2016 (AKA, his first halves in 2015 and 2016), which would be plenty good.
If he’s that guy in 2017, he’s going to get paaaaaid after the season.
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