Today is a special day.
No, not because the St. Louis Cardinals appear to be giving up on the season by trading starter Mike Leake to the Seattle Mariners just two years into his 5-year/$80 million deal. But instead because of a really special anniversary.
Today is the two-year anniversary of Jake Arrieta’s first career no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodgers Stadium. Who remembers this one?
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 30, 2017
That was an especially huge moment for Arrieta, who had gone through more ups and downs than most Major Leaguers, and was finally pitching like the elite ace scouts had seen percolating over the years. But also for the Cubs, who moved to 19 games over .500 en route to a 97-win season and their first NLCS appearance since 2003.
And while that no-hitter was arguably the highlight of his second half, it was just the headliner of a truly dominant stretch of baseball, the likes of which had never quite been seen in the history of the sport before: 0.75 ERA, 2.00 FIP, .147 AVG against.
Arrieta of course went on to dominate the Pirates in the NL Wild Card game and eventually win the 2015 NL Cy Young award. It was a truly mind-blowing season.
And here we are two years later.
After a definitively less exciting 2016 season and an even slower start in 2017 (in more ways than one), Arrieta has come around in a significant way lately. Indeed, after last night’s 6.0 innings, 2-hit, 2-walk shutout against the Pirates (the highlights of which you can watch right here), Arrieta’s full-season numbers are starting to look really great. Let’s take a closer look.
For the season as a whole, Arrieta’s posted a 3.36 ERA which ranks seventh in the National League and 13th in all of MLB. His 3.85 FIP is a little bit lower down in the rankings (18th in MLB), but as we’ve explored many times, his relatively near-elite contact management helps explain that gap in expected versus actual results.
But it’s been his more recent stretch that’s really caught our attention.
In the second half of the season, Arrieta’s 1.59 ERA is second best in all of baseball, while his FIP is top ten in the NL. He’s also allowing just a .186 batting average against, which is fifth best in the game. Of course, with a .228 BABIP, it’s fair to say he’s probably been a bit lucky during this stretch, but Arrieta’s weak-contact ways have always helped him to a lower batting average on balls in play (.257 in nearly 4 seasons with the Cubs).
Similarly, and in the interest of honesty, Arrieta’s strand rate during the second half is a bit high for someone with a 22.8% strikeout rate. But in the first half of the season, his strand rate was the fourth lowest in baseball despite an even better 23.5% strikeout rate. So in other words, all things considered, his overall luck probably hasn’t unfairly or unusually propped up his performance. He’s simply pitching well.
For his part, Arrieta recognizes the improvement in his performance, and wonders if his focus on results in the first half of the year were the cause of his struggles.
“I wouldn’t say I lacked confidence,” Arrieta said via CSN Chicago. “I think there was a little bit of frustration, at times, throughout the first half with the way things were going. And I might have focused on the results a little bit too much, rather than just focusing on trying to execute and refine my repertoire and be a little bit better moving forward.”
Later, Arrieta mentioned that he’s gotten all of his pitches to a point where if two of them aren’t working on a given day, he can rely on his other two to get by. That sort of versatility is not only the mark of a wise and grizzled veteran, but also of a pitcher who’s still got four or five pitches strong enough to mix in and rely upon on a start-by-start basis.
And in case you’re wondering, Arrieta was primarily sinker/slider last night, and threw his changeup and curveball only 10 times combined (10.3%). In the start prior, however, he threw those two pitches twice that amount (20.4%). Clearly, Jake’s not all words.
It might’ve taken this former Cy Young award winner some time to adjust to life as a veteran with lower fastball velocity, but it appears he’s figured out how to make it work. And the Cubs will gladly benefit from his resurgence down the stretch.