A couple weeks ago, I wrote that I had discovered something “wrong” with Jake Arrieta. You should probably stop what you’re doing right now and go read that because it’s awesome, but if you’re in a hurry I’ll give you the quick-and-dirty: a change in his release point might be affecting his ability to locate. So why am I bringing it back up after his three subsequent starts have all been pretty good, at least from a statistical standpoint? Well, that’s exactly why I’m bringing it up.
Have you ever seen Highlights magazine or done one of those little “find what’s different” exercises where you’ve got two similar pictures and need to circle the incongruous images? That’s how Arrieta’s season looks to me, like an abstraction of those puzzles. I’m sure I’m just seeing things, though, chasing shadows in the dying light and maybe trying to drum up a few clicks in the process. No way I could really be detecting anything troublesome in the performance of a guy who’s 11-2 with a 1.74 ERA. Except I am.
Arrieta’s got more than enough talent to get himself out of jams, like the recent start in which he walked three straight Pirates before wriggling out of the inning. Observed in a vacuum, that’s no big deal. A little hiccup, the Cubs win, and we all walk away happy. But that’s the thing: all the walks.
In 15 starts this season, Arrieta has allowed a lower BABIP, he’s given up more ground balls, and he’s struck out more batters than in either of the last two seasons. However, he’s also averaging 3.21 free passes per 9 innings, a significantly higher mark than in his previous full campaigns with the Cubs. The ace gave up only 2.36 BB/9 in 2014 and that number dropped to 1.89 last year.
For those of you without the use of a calculator, that’s an extra 1.32 runners per 9 innings over 2015. One way to look at that would be to think of it like allowing one additional standard-sized baserunner and one extra Alexi Amarista each game. Ah, but that would be to assume Arrieta pitches a complete game every time out. Since he’s averaging just over 6 1/2 innings, however, those extra 1.32 walks actually amount to 0.96 extra runners.
Those extra runners haven’t come around to bit the Cubs yet — at least not to any great extent — but we’re definitely seeing them manifested in higher early pitch counts, which leads to shorter outings. Arrieta’s actually averaging one fewer pitch per outing (103.2 vs. 104.2), but that’s coming in nearly half an inning less (6.53 vs. 6.94) each game. I’ll save you from a little gory math and just tell you that that means an extra eight-tenths of a pitch per inning.
Not concerned yet? I don’t blame you. You could easily counter any worrisome stats by citing that Arrieta’s average game score of 66 this season is a mere point below his standard mark during his Cy Young campaign. Or that his fastball, sinker, and curve all rate appreciably better in 2016 when it comes to preventing runs. He’s giving up less contact across the board and is inducing more swinging strikes.
Try this on for size though: in 33 starts this year, Arrieta failed to complete 6 innings only three times and he walked four or more men just once. In 15 starts this season, he has already had five such occurrences of each. The fourseam, sinker, change, and curve are getting more whiffs than ever, but Arrieta continues to miss spots with his slider. Missing spots with your best pitch, and one that you use more than any but the sinker, results longer at-bats (even if it’s only 0.8 pitches per inning) and more walks.
More walks means less margin for error and more use of a bullpen that is widely believed to be the team’s weak spot. And with 18 games scheduled over the next 18 days heading into the break, margin for error isn’t really something the Cubs want to lean on. Hence the Adam Warren move and getting some fresh arms in the bullpen.
Perhaps it’s simply a result of having more success with his auxiliary offerings, but Arrieta’s decreased usage of the slider (20.6% vs. 29% over the past two seasons) indicates that he’s not yet perfected the feel for it in 2016. Arrieta isn’t broken and I’m certainly not trying to suggest there’s even a possibility that he could be, it’s just that he seems a little…off.
And maybe none of this is necessary, maybe I’m just killing the canary in the coal mine lest its warble reveal that there’s really nothing to fear after all. But you know what? I’d rather do that than go on whistling to try and make you think everything’s perfect and that our pets’ heads aren’t falling off.
As I suggested in that earlier piece, his big run last season didn’t really get rolling until last July, which is when he really got the slider dialed in. That could mean really good things with the All-Star Game right around the corner. So let’s just go ahead and break out those Jake Arrieta Great Again hats and bookmark this page so we can laugh about it in October.