Chicago Cubs’ starter Jake Arrieta began the 2017 season with a couple of nice performances against the Cardinals (6.0 IP, 0 ER, 67 Game Score) and Brewers (7.0 IP, 3ER, 67 Game Score). Unfortunately, questions and concerns about his command and velocity arose in conjunction with those starts, and were exacerbated by a really tough stretch thereafter.
Indeed, over his next six starts (which does not include Sunday’s effort against the Brewers), Arrieta’s ERA ballooned to 6.82, despite owning an xFIP down below 4.00. And the weird thing is/was that – like his peripherals – our eyes seem to tell a different story than his ERA. Arrieta looked like a good version of himself and was still frequently keeping batters off-balance. Further, he wasn’t really walking many guys (6.2 BB%) and was striking hitters out at an above average clip (22.8%).
It’s likely that an uncharacteristically low groundball rate (38.2% during that stretch vs. 48.2% for his career) and an ugly HR/FB ratio did him in. In fact, that continues to be my operating theory.
But the results from yesterday’s start against the Brewers were much better than the recent six-game skid. Through 6.0 innings, Arrieta did not allow an earned run, walked just one batter, and struck out six. So what was different?
Typically, one might point to the 6.00 K/BB ratio (and 16 whiffs) as the key to the game, but that’s not quite where I land. While those numbers are both impressive and encouraging (don’t get me wrong, you’ll take that every time); it was his ability to induce ground balls that excited me, and Arrieta, the most.
Take it from the man, himself:
“It felt good,” Arrieta said. “I was able to bear down and make a few good pitches. I kept the ball on the ground quite a bit today, which is nice. That’s an indicator of a step in the right direction. Just look to build off that.”
Yesterday, Arrieta recorded a 50% groundball rate, which is the best single-game mark he’s posted since the first game of the year. And his ability to keep the ball on the ground proved crucial, as all five Brewers hits (against Arrieta) were singles (fly ball revolution in reverse).
The start was far from perfect – Arrieta pitched with runners in scoring position in all but one of his innings, threw three wild pitches, and hit a batter – but that’s sort of the beauty of getting a lot of ground balls. Big innings are much harder to execute – even when you’re making mistakes – when batters aren’t dropping line drives in for extra bases or hitting dingers over the wall.
Arrieta’s next start will be against the Dodgers this Friday night. And while I’ll certainly keep an eye on his command, I’ll be looking closer at the number of groundballs he’s able to induce. If he can continue to make batters hit the ball on the ground, the results, I suspect, will improve immediately.