Make Arrieta Great Again: Ace Needs to Regain Comfort, Improve Execution
On the surface, it seems like peak paranoid nitpickery to lament the struggles of a guy who’s 17-7 with a 2.96 ERA. But those sterling box score stats don’t even begin to tell the story of Jake Arrieta’s season, particularly if we examine the same period over which he displayed such dominance in 2015.
Left off the All-Star Team last year, Arrieta parlayed the best second half in history into the NL Cy Young and veritable demigod status. Since June 27 of this season, however, the bearded righty has gone only 6-5 with a 4.33 ERA. He has walked 3.92 men per 9 innings while striking out only 7.11 per 9 in that stretch. That 1.82 K/BB is nearly one-third of the 4.92 he put up in 2015. Things aren’t getting better, either.
Arrieta has issued 38 walks and has struck out 69 (nice?) over his last 14 starts, a span of 87.1 innings pitched. But in just 37.1 innings over his last 6 starts, the former best pitcher on the planet has walked 21 and struck out only 27 (1.29 K/BB). He’s also allowed 22 hits in that period, 6 of which have left the yard (1.45 HR/9). Of course, he’s also holding opponents to a measly .173 batting average on a ridiculous .170 BABIP in that same time.
So what’s the issue?
“I just need to find that comfort with the sinker in the strike zone, first pitch, and after that, it opens up a lot of doors,” Arrieta explained during the postmortem from Saturday’s drubbing. “[The execution] needs to be better early in the counts to prevent guys from taking pitches and getting into 2-1, 3-1 counts. I just need to tighten that up moving forward. I have a couple starts before October, and just to prepare for that, that’s the mindset.”
Believe it or not, Arrieta has actually faced fewer “bad” counts (2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1) this season as compared to last. Even during that incredible 2015 campaign, he got behind hitters in one of those four counts an average of 12.3 times per game (yes, I understand there’s redundancy there). This season, he’s only done so 12.06 times each time he takes the mound. Though only a marginal improvement, it’s an improvement nonetheless.
So I ask again, what’s the issue?
“I’m trying to avoid the unnecessary walks, and the big mistake to Braun was really the turning point,” Arrieta admitted. “[I need to] be better in the zone early in the count and then expand when the count is in my favor. Obviously, the elimination of walks, I need to be better at.”
While Arrieta has actually held opponents to a slightly lower batting average this season in those aforementioned counts, he’s been much worse in terms of walks and strikeouts. After issuing only 37 free passes in 2015, Arrieta has walked 56 men this season. It’s not a surprise, then, that he’s struck out only 27 after ringing up 54 hitters last year (again, we’re talking about his production following those specific counts).
A cursory perusal of the numbers seems to contradict what Arrieta is saying about his early execution being an issue. He got into 1-0 counts an average of 10.48 times in each of his 33 Cy Young starts. In 29 starts so far this season, he’s only at 10.55 such counts. It’s not just what he’s doing, though, it’s about how and where he’s doing it. Check out these heat maps of Arrieta’s 0-0 count pitch locations over the last two seasons.
Do you see how he’s working a little more down and way more over the plate here in 2016? The differences in the two maps might not seem substantive when scanned quickly, but just think about how location and deception factor in a pitcher’s performance. All the sick movement in the world means nothing if hitters are able to sit on your pitches and know that they can either hit them or take them for balls.
That’s even more important late in the count, particularly when down in it, Arrieta’s struggles with which I have already discussed. If you’d like to see those difficulties illustrated, just take a look at the difference in his location in three-ball counts between last year and this.
Down, down, down. That was on display all too frequently Saturday against the Brewers, with Arrieta channeling Kerri Walsh Jennings as he spiked pitch after pitch into the dirt.
While that may have been a little harsh, the results of have been pretty clear whether you’re viewing them on a heat map or in live game action. What’s the cause, though? Well, I’m glad you asked. The short answer is that there appear to be some mechanical flaws or changes in Arrieta’s delivery that are affecting his ability to locate.
The first of these is vertical release point, which appears to be up in general over last season. There’s something in the data that corresponds directly with what I wrote earlier. See if you can tell what I’m talking about and we’ll meet up on the other side of the chart.
Oh, cool, you’re actually still here. I was actually kinda worried you were going to stand me up. Lord knows I’ve dealt with enough of that in my life. Did you figure out what I was talking about? If not, don’t worry, you’ve got another chance on the horizontal release point chart below.
Figured out the correlation yet? I’m sure you recall that Arrieta’s struggles began in earnest right around the end of June. As you can see from the charts above, both are appreciably different from last season and there’s been a noticeable shift in both his horizontal and vertical release points from about mid-June on, with the former really standing out. Actually, everything in that second chart seemed to be lining up pretty well season-over-season through the first couple months. Until it didn’t.
If you’re looking at the y axes (did you know that’s the only word in the English language that acts as the plural of three different singular nouns — ax, axe, and axis), you might be wondering how fractions of an inch could really be at fault. Or maybe you’re not wondering. Maybe you realize full well that when we’re talking about pitching, particularly at the most elite level, each millimeter of every split hair makes a difference.
It may be difficult for most folks to see a line graph and translate it to real life, understandably so. Maybe these pictures, which I culled from Jeff Sullivan’s piece in FanGraps that detailed Arrieta’s issues, will help. The images on the left are from 2015, while those on the right are from this season.
And here’s some further explanation from Sullivan’s article of what’s going on here:
Arrieta hasn’t made any giant changes (in the top set). But I do think something is starting here — Arrieta, on the right, seems to be leaning back. He’s already dropping on his back leg, and it looks to me like his shoulders are tilted.
Here, there are two things. One, on the right, Arrieta appears more over-rotated. Arrieta has exaggerated his shoulder turn. And then you can see the difference in his left leg. On the left, Arrieta is calmly striding forward. On the right, the stride seems more aggressive, and Arrieta has his heel higher in the air, off the dirt. His timing is changed, given how much that all depends on when he plants his foot, and there’s also a different energy transfer that, just visually, seems more aggressive than it was. Last year’s Arrieta smoothly shifted from back leg to front. This year’s Arrieta looks more like he’s reaching back for something.
Bringing it all together, these images bring to life what the charts told us earlier. You can see how that slight lean has Arrieta releasing from a spot just a little closer to the center of the rubber. And if he’s reaching back for a little more, really forcing it, that might be what’s causing him to let his pitches go a little higher. The result has obviously been an erosion in his command, which we already knew from the numbers.
If there’s some good news in all of this is that velocity doesn’t seem to be a problem. Sure, it’s down a little from last season, but all of Arrieta’s pitches are above his career average velos. I know he said the location and subsequent efficacy of his sinker is where it all starts, though I’d argue that the slider is the real culprit. I’m not going to head down that rabbit trail because it’s a whole ‘nother conversation, just wanted to throw out there that the slider simply isn’t the same nasty pitch we saw last year. Maybe because he’s over-throwing?
Now that we know what the issue is, at least in a general sense, the question becomes whether Arrieta and the Cubs can fix it.
“I know the velocity and strength is there,” Arrieta said of his outing Saturday and, really, the last few months. “I was focused more on executing pitches with minimal effort. I was really working on stuff today, trying to see where my comfort zone was. “At the end of the day, I’ll come out here tomorrow, learn from it and get back to work.”
His manager agrees.
“It’s fixable,” Joe Maddon said of Arrieta’s performance. “We have some ideas. We’ll go over it with him. In spite of that, look at what he’s done to this point. That’s the biggest thing. If we could get him to get better command of his fastball in the next two starts, everything will play off that.”
That’s the key, getting things ironed out before heading into October. I view Arrieta at this point as a sports car that got caught in a hail storm. He’s still got the powerful engine and the high performance suspension with the really sweet tires and rims, he just needs to get into the body shop and have some of those dents hammered and buffed out (insert obligatory joke about Jake’s buff body here). And if he can recover even a little of that 2015 — or just early 2016 — form, hoooooo, buddy.