Tonight, Jake Arrieta will make his 22nd start of the season, which might bring about different levels of optimism among different crowds.
You see, after a pretty rough stretch in the second half of 2016, Arrieta kicked this season off on the wrong foot (5.44 ERA, 4.30 FIP through his first eight starts), and that’s stuck with a lot of people.
As we’ve previously discussed, Arrieta has actually been a whole lot better since making a mechanical adjustment to his delivery back at the end of May. But despite enormous improvements to his ERA (3.20 over his past 13 starts), his FIP still lags a fair bit behind (4.19 FIP).
Fortunately, I believe I’ve discovered an explanation for the stark difference in his actual versus expected results, and it’s an extremely encouraging one for the rest of this season: Quality contact management.
Stick with me.
Last season, Kyle Hendricks led the Majors with a 2.13 ERA, despite boasting the fourth best FIP (3.20). The similarly vast difference between his expected and actual results last season can be partly attributed to the fact that Hendricks led the league in soft contact (25.1%), while finishing fourth in hard contact (25.8%). That’s elite contact management, and something we discussed a lot last year.
To be sure, many other pitchers featured strikeout and walk rates far greater than Hendricks’ marks in 2016, but, as we now know, inducing a ton of weak contact (in front of a solid defense) can do wonders for the things that actually happen on the field.
Well, as it turns out, Jake Arrieta is inducing a ton of weak contact and limiting hard contact to a great deal of success this year (and even more so lately), as well. So let’s take a look at the overall numbers – and relative league ranking – to see what he might make of this.
MLB Soft-Contact% Leaders:
- Kyle Freeland: 24.4%
- Clayton Kershaw: 24.4%
- Gerrit Cole: 24.0%
- Aaron Nola: 23.9%
- R.A. Dickey: 23.9%
- Tyler Chatwood: 22.6%
- Jamie Garcia: 22.1%
- Jake Arrieta: 22.0%
- Corey Kluber: 21.9%
- Jimmy Nelson: 21.8%
MLB Hard-Contact% Leaders:
- Jordan Montgomery: 25.8%
- R.A. Dickey: 26.4%
- Jon Lester: 26.5%
- Stephen Strasburg: 26.7%
- Mike Moltynewicz: 27.6%
- Max Scherzer: 28.1%
- Jake Arrieta: 28.1%
- Clayton Kershaw: 28.2%
- Jamie Garcia: 28.4%
- Tyler Chatwood: 28.4%
As you can see, Jake Arrieta ranks among the top eight in soft-contact allowed and the top seven in hard contact allowed (nestled right between Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer) in all of baseball. And while his soft contact rate has dropped just a bit in the post-May 21st world, his hard contact rate went from 31.8% to just 25.8%. That’s a HUGE difference.
Perhaps it’s not outlandish to think, then, that Arrieta’s changes played a significant role in lowering his BABIP from .355 before the adjustments to .230 afterwards. I certainly don’t think he can be given all of the credit for the drop (there’s probably some luck cooked in there), but it’s almost impossible to believe that the contact management he’s shown in the past few weeks wasn’t a significant contributing factor).
In addition, the same can be said for the 87-point drop in batting average against (.287 to .200), the 54-point drop in home runs allowed per nine innings (1.61 to 1.07), and the 8.6 percentage point gain in ground ball rate (40.2% to 48.8%). Clearly, hitters are not squaring Arrieta up well (at all) lately, and that’s kept the runs relatively off the board.
So, yes, Arrieta’s FIP is still not where you want it to be – he can thank a lower strikeout rate and higher walk rate for that. BUT, and this is a pretty big but, if he can continue to induce a ton of weak contact, there’s no reason to believe he can’t keep having actual, real-game success every time he picks up the ball.
And that’s something to get excited about.