How can I put this in a way so as not to offend or unnerve? There’s a rumor goin’ all round and Jake Arrieta’s been gettin’ served. They say that he ain’t been natural in baby who knows how long. It’s hard for me to say this nice when so many get it wrong.
There might be 23 positions in a one-night stand, but there are only nine on a baseball field, and there’s really only one of them I’m concerned with at this moment. I should really be civil about this, should calmly state my case and let haters keep hatin’ as they see fit. But I’m pissed off that a guy who probably hasn’t watched much baseball outside of the occasional SportsCenter highlights and who certainly hasn’t done any research on Jake Arrieta is now turning his contrived jackassery up to 11 and playing a power chord of ignorant speculation. Worse yet, people in the crowd are singing along and flicking their Zippos.
Some people — for whom Stephen A. Smith has now become the de facto mouthpiece — are idiots, frankly. Those are Arrieta’s words, but I am co-opting them since none truer could possibly be written. And now that ESPN’s resident loudmouth has taken it upon himself to point a finger at the reigning Cy Young, I am taking it upon myself to point one back. And it’s not the index, either.
Just the other day, I had a “conversation” with someone on Twitter who brought up similar skepticism over Arrieta’s performance, explaining that baseball’s history with steroids had poisoned the waters for him years ago. Even though I don’t agree, I can kinda at least get where the guy was coming from. Thing is, we’re not just talking about blowhard talking heads at the Four-Letter or the occasional meatball fan, as the whispers are apparently coming from inside the game too.
“I’ve heard players, and I’m talking about some of the best players in the league question whether I’ve taken steroids or not,” Arrieta told USA Today recently. Some of the things I hear are pretty funny, and some people are idiots, frankly.
Laughing is exactly what I will do. You continue to do your thing though. No one will undercut my hard work. @stephenasmith
— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) April 27, 2016
“I’ll see on Twitter, ‘My close source revealed to me he’s on steroids.’ Well, the 10 tests I take a year say otherwise. I eat plants. I eat lean meat. I work out. And I do things the right way.
“Hey, [a cheating allegation]’s one of the best compliments you can give a guy. I appreciate the fact that you think I’m pretty good, but taking steroids, that’s pushing it.’’
Smith and others possessed of limited knowledge of how baseball performance is measured point to Arrieta’s jump in win totals and drop in ERA as sure signs that the guy must be doing something illegal. And the thing is, plenty of people will hear those fallacious arguments and will cock their heads to the side pensively to mull things over. It’s unfortunate that the whetstone of skepticism has sharpened Occam’s razor to the point where PED usage has become the simplest answer to the question of how an athlete got better, but here we are.
Please allow me, then, to cock my hat to the side and pull out my strop in an effort to better align the blade’s edge. Let’s first look at the immutable facts of the matter, which spring from Arrieta’s vast improvement during his time with the Cubs. I don’t believe anyone will argue that he’s been a wholly different pitcher in Chicago that what he was in Baltimore, hence the reason he was traded in the first place. Arrieta is currently on an historic run of 24 consecutive quality starts that includes two no-hitters and all manner of incredible stats.
The obvious numbers seem too good to be true so, naturally, many assume they are. People see a guy who went from downright bad to absolutely filthy in what they perceive to be short order and they connect what they believe to be logical dots. But in jumping to conclusions on the basis of the most gaudy of the readily-available numbers they’re being fed, Arrieta’s skeptics fail to see the rest of the story. I guess that makes me Paul Harvey.
While it’s true that Arrieta’s ERA has dropped off a cliff — from 4.78 in a 2013 campaign he split between Baltimore and Chicago to 2.53, 1.77, and 0.87 over the subsequent seasons — his FIP and xFIP tell a different story. I’ll spare those of you already in the know the full definition of those terms, but will offer that they attempt to better reflect a pitcher’s performance by isolating the scope of reference to only those outcomes he can control.
So while we’ve seen a marked decrease in Arrieta’s ERA, his FIP has actually gone up over the past three seasons and his xFIP hasn’t been lower than 2.61 in that time. One way to explain that difference would be to say that he’s been the beneficiary of some incredibly good luck, but fortune is too fleeting to provide the foundation for such a sustained run. It would be more accurate to say that Arrieta has become a player who is capable of producing his own luck, at least to an extent.
Okay, cool, but that explanation sorta leaves the door open to the PED crowd, who could claim that “luck” is just something that comes from a bottle. We still haven’t, after all, addressed exactly how Arrieta has been able to manufacture serendipity. Before we get into what he is doing, though, I think it’s important to look at what the Cubs ace is not doing, namely throwing significantly harder or with more movement than he did at other points in his career.
Below, you’ll find graphs illustrating the horizontal and vertical movement and the velocity of Arrieta’s pitches from 2009-16. Now, a PED truther might expect that we’d see these numbers going up over the past three seasons. The assumption, I assume anyway, would be that drugs would help a pitcher to throw harder or to get more movement. Or perhaps steroids and HGH would simply help to maintain stamina, thus leading to overall better performance later in the season and thus, higher average velo.
Enough preamble, let’s have a look-see and we’ll compare notes after.
Huh, it’s almost as though there’s really no appreciable difference over the last eight seasons. The overall trend in movement actually appears to be somewhat downward, or flat at best. Velocity looks to have ticked up a bit in 2013, but it’s since leveled out or decreased. That’s anything but extraordinary or unexpected when we’re consider that the pitcher in question had turned 27 prior to that season.
Okay, that maybe helps to dispel the idea that juice was required to turn Jake Arrieta into something he wasn’t already. That’s because who he already was was a top prospect who had a very nice college career at TCU, was drafted in the 5th round by the Orioles in 2007, and was Baltimore’s opening day starter in 2012. Jake Arrieta has always been a very good thrower of the baseball.
After years of underachieving on the field, we kept hearing "Why isn't Arrieta great?" Now he's finally great & people keep questioning why.
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) April 27, 2016
But the man who would eventually author perhaps the most dominant run of pitching anyone’s ever seen was also something else: inconsistent and unsure of himself. It sounds strange, but we actually saw flashes of the old Arrieta last Thursday night in Cincinnati when he no-hit the Reds. He was admittedly sloppy, at least by his standards, and walked four hitters against only six strikeouts. Catcher David Ross commented after the game that the familiar sick movement was still there, just that the location was off.
Hmmm, might we be onto something here? Before I share more of my thoughts with you, I want to share a pair of heat maps displaying the location of Arrieta’s pitches. The first was developed from his pre-Cubs offerings and the second is from July 2013 on. Examine away.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that we’re seeing a guy who finally harnessed his ability by locating much, much better. The first thing that jumps out in the newer map is no more red in that danger zone from middle-in (to righties) to the heart of the plate. Just look at how he’s been able to keep the ball down in the zone, particularly in that lower-right corner. Those tendencies are directly reflected in the results Arrieta has gotten over the last few seasons.
The most notable improvements have been in walks per 9 innings and ground ball rate, both of which have contributed mightily to the vanishing ERA. I understand that those with only a cursory understanding of the game might not look for or grasp some of this stuff, but it’s not exactly rocket surgery. Don’t put runners on base, not as many runners can cross the plate. And it’s hard to get hits — and impossible to hit home runs — when you beat the ball into the ground.
That’s all a product location, folks. And unless there’s a new designer steroid called accurabinol, I can’t come up with a plausible explanation as to how PED’s are helping out here. I’m sure a lot of readers are smarter than me, though, so maybe one of you can explain to me how they could be. Go ahead, I’ll be here for a while.
Nothing? Okay, well, I’m just gonna go on writing if you don’t mind.
While I’ve focused on the statistical and logical arguments thus far to quiet the whispers, I do feel the need to discuss the intagibles too. Remember earlier when I said Arrieta was unsure of himself early in his career? It’s hard to reconcile that image with the one of the unflappable rock of a man we’ve seen over the last couple seasons, but it’s hard to maintain your confidence when you’re wanting for stability. Arrieta came up in June of 2010 but spent parts of the ’12 and ’13 seasons in the minors, either due to injuries or poor performance. He also split time between the rotation and bullpen in 2012.
I don’t care how much talent you have and how good you’re supposed to be, doubt can be a mother. And if your confidence wavers and you can’t get the psychological side of your game right, well…good luck (except not in the same way that we were just talking about earlier). In Arrieta’s case, the trade to Chicago was exactly what he needed to shake things up and kind of hit the mental reset button. It didn’t hurt that he got to work with noted reclamation guru Chris Bosio, whose noted affinity for the cutter helped Arrieta to develop one of the most devastating pitches in the game.
It’s not just the slutter, though. In keeping with the tenets of his infamously varied workout routine that blends strength with flexibility, Arrieta can deploy each pitch in his repertoire with great efficacy. Physical aspects like grip and mechanics are obviously key there, of course, but a pitcher has to be willing to trust his ability to deploy any and all of them on command. And when he can do that? Woo, boy, confidence is a hell of a drug.
Or maybe it’d be more accurate to call it a contagion, one that Jake Arrieta has got an absolutely raging case of right now. It’s not the kind of thing that can be cured with more cowbell, although there are certainly going to be a few cymbals clanging discordantly. I only hope I can convince a few of the drummers in Screamin’ A’s backup band to put down their drumsticks and see through the noise.
There’s no doubt he and others are going keep belting out the asinine hot takes regardless, but I intent to be standing here with the fire hose and extinguisher the whole while.