Jake Arrieta and the Mystery of the Missing Whiff

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Jake Arrieta and the Mystery of the Missing Whiff

Chicago Cubs

jake arrietaJake Arrieta, the primary piece the Cubs acquired from the Orioles in the Scott Feldman trade, is doing fairly well in his extended audition for a 2014 rotation spot. He came in with a leg up, considering that the Cubs appeared to manage Arrieta’s call-up such that they gained an extra year of control and avoided his reaching Super Two status next year. You don’t do that for a guy you don’t expect to be a part of the future in a relatively significant role.

That leg-up has looked justified so far in Arrieta’s time with the Cubs. Watching him pitch, you can easily see why the Orioles dreamed on his stuff for so long. He’s got great velocity, a solid-looking curveball, and a very nice mix of pitches. That includes an 89 mph, late-moving thing that just looks silly good, and not even Dale Sveum knows what to call it. Is it a slider? It’s so fast, and moves later and slightly less than your typical slider. Is it a cutter? Well, the speed says yes, but it moves a hell of a lot more than your typical cutter. All I know is that it’s a nasty, nasty pitch when Arrieta can command it.

Not only does his stuff look fantastic each time out, but he’s posted a 3.77 ERA over five starts and 28.2 innings with the Cubs. He’s allowed just 18 hits in this 28.2 innings, which is incredible.

You know there’s a HOWEVA coming, right?

Here, the howeva is pretty much the story of Arrieta’s career: although he’s seeing nice results so far with the Cubs, he’s doing it with a lot of help behind him. That’s because Arrieta, for all his ridiculous stuff, is striking out just 6.6 per 9, and walking 5.3 per 9. To be sure, the former number is weak (especially for a guy with his apparent stuff), and the latter number is downright bad. It’s a very small sample size with the Cubs, but the K/BB issues hold true for his career: just 6.9 K/9 in the bigs for his career, and a healthy 4.1 BB/9.

Indeed, Arrieta simply doesn’t generate a whole lot of swings and misses. For his career, per FanGraphs, Arrieta’s swinging strike percentage is just 6.8%. For comparison’s sake, that kind of whiff rate would place Arrieta near the bottom of qualifying pitchers in the big leagues this year (Yovani Gallardo is 57th out of 64 qualifying pitchers this year with a 6.7% whiff rate).

When you watch Arrieta, you’d expect him to rack up huge strikeout totals … but he doesn’t. In limited experience viewing him, I struggle to come up with an explanation for the disconnect between what my eyes are telling me, and what the numbers say Arrieta is.

Some of the explanation here could be the control issues (though many pitchers who have control issues still have huge strikeout rates – in fact, that pairing is quite common), though it could more specifically be command issues (the ability to throw particular pitches where you want them, as opposed to the mere ability to throw strikes). Compared to the better pitchers in baseball, Arrieta is outside of the zone far more often, and, when he’s in the strike zone, he generates fewer swings. Fewer overall swings will certainly bring down that whiff rate, but the question here is why. Perhaps because Arrieta is so frequently outside of the zone, hitters are content to see a large number of pitches from Arrieta, not feeling as though they absolutely have to swing early at “their” pitch. That could lead to deeper counts (we’ve seen that), and more compelling pitches in the zone later in an at bat. Not only does that not lead to strikeouts, it could lead to a whole lot of trouble that would bely the raw stuff you see when watching a guy pitch. Supporting this analysis is the contact rate against Arrieta when he does come in the zone: it’s almost 90%, which would again place him near the bottom of the league.

One quick fix could be getting Arrieta to work in the zone earlier in counts (I know, I know – easier said than done). His career first pitch strike percentage – 55.9% – would, you guessed it, be near the bottom of the league this year. When you’re starting out 1-0 almost 45% of the time, big league hitters are going to be plenty content to let you put yourself in a tough spot, forcing you to come at them with juicier pitches later in the at bat. Or they’ll just take their walk, something Arrieta gives them more than 10% of the time.

That all said, maybe the answer here is simply something I don’t see. Maybe Arrieta has a pitch that looks nasty, and velocity that looks good. Other than that, maybe his stuff really isn’t overpowering. I’m no scout, and I won’t pretend to be one here.

To that end, Arrieta himself talks about wanting to be a guy who works down in the zone and lets the batters put the ball in play. With a career BABIP of .289 (lower than average), maybe there’s a justification there (though his career groundball rate is a meh 43.4%). Maybe Arrieta recognizes that success for him in the big leagues, despite how his stuff might appear to us, is going to come from being a contact pitcher. Which, well, he kind of already is, minus the huge number of pitches he throws to get there.

In any case, I trust what I’ve seen from pitching coach Chris Bosio and the rest of the Cubs’ coaching staff when it comes to bringing younger pitchers along (though Arrieta is already 27). After all these years, there probably isn’t an easy fix that allows Arrieta to convert his apparently above average stuff into an above average strikeout rate. And if he’s not going to get a bunch of strikeouts, you might as well see what you can do about making him an innings-eating, high contact type (as it stands, he’s throwing way too many pitches to be that type). Maybe he never becomes a front-of-the-rotation type in that scenario, but at least he could blossom into a consistently effective starter.

Or you could see how he’d do as a high leverage reliever, but we’re not there quite yet.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.