You don’t need to understand Bill James’ game score metric to know that Jake Arrieta’s Tuesday start was not one of his best. The six-run, six-walk, seven-stolen-base performance could be described by any number of pejorative terms, but I liken it to the sound made by rending an entire sheaf of damp construction paper. Or perhaps tearing up that mythical seven-year deal that aces supposedly get would be more appropriate.
“The six walks, really,” Arrieta responded when asked about his struggles after the game. “I don’t know how many of those guys scored, I would assume it was probably three, maybe three or four of the walks. That’s not gonna work, especially when you face a lineup like that.”
It was only the third time in his Cubs tenure that Arrieta has walked at least a half-dozen batters, with the previous occasions coming on June 16, 2015 and August 18 last year (a game he and the Cubs actually won). As you might imagine, neither of those games resulted in a very good score, either. Even so, Tuesday’s start was the worst of the three.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of game score, it’s actually really simple. You start with 50 and add a point for every out recorded, a point for every strikeout, and two points for every inning completed beyond the 4th. Then you subtract one point for each walk, two points for each hit and unearned run, and four points for each earned run. The highest possible score in a nine-inning game is 114 and the highest ever recorded was Kerry Wood’s 105 in that 20-K game.
The anemic 27 Arrieta posted last night was one of the six worst of his career, which is bad enough on it’s own before you even begin to consider that it’s not even his worst start of the current campaign. The former Cy Young winner has also pitched games of 25 (April 28 at Boston) and a 15 (May 9 at Colorado) this season. But it gets worse.
Arrieta has an average game score of 60 over his 114 starts with the Cubs, but 38 (33%) of those outings have resulted in a score of 50 or lower. Of his 16 starts this season, nine (56%) fall into that sub-50-score bucket and six have resulted in scores of 42 or lower. If the last year or so hadn’t already made it obvious, Tuesday night’s performance was proof positive that Arrieta isn’t the same pitcher we saw two seasons ago.
Or is he?
Immediately prior to that historic run in 2015, Arrieta went through a stretch that saw him post six sub-50 game scores over the course of nine starts in May and June. So maybe we’re about to see him rise from the ashes once more and propel the Cubs to the postseason while increasing those impending free-agent offers north of $100 million.
Except that’s a really blunted view of the whole thing and totally ignores the fact that Arrieta simply doesn’t look as sharp these days. During that rough stretch in 2015, he struck out 39 against 11 walks (3.54 K/BB). Over this season’s group of sub-50 games, he’s struck out 49 while handing out 23 free passes (2.13 K/BB).
As we saw against the Nationals, Arrieta can’t or doesn’t care about holding runners, which makes those walks that much more detrimental. And striking out fewer hitters means more balls in play, which obviously means more scoring opportunities as well. That’s never a good recipe for success.
I should acknowledge that I’m cherry-picking here, so the numbers are going to look worse as a result. Indeed, there have been moments in which Arrieta resembles that dominant shut-down ace who can win a game all by himself. But the problem is that those high points are fewer and further between and the lower points have been coming with greater frequency. Simply put, Arrieta neither exudes nor instills confidence when he takes the mound these days.
So, just like lingering cut on his thumb or his profuse perspiration, I’m running out of excuses for the struggles and explanations for how Arrieta can get better. I mean, yeah, he can get better. But I think I’ve moved past expecting that and now just hold my breath and hope for the best each time he takes the bump.