The Jake Arrieta Extension Talks, and Why Both Parties are Right

I’ll admit this: last Tuesday, upon seeing the cascade of tweets on my timeline regarding the Cubs and Jake Arrieta failing to reach an agreement on a contract extension, I scoffed a little bit. “How could the Cubs afford to be so cavalier about extending a talent like Arrieta?”

Of course, this was an irrational, knee-jerk reaction. The thing is, neither party is wrong to disagree with one another right now. It’s just a bit premature for either side to be discussing a long-term extension. Arrieta has two seasons of team control left, and was just awarded some Cy Young hardware for his phenomenal, yet likely not replicable, 2015 season. It still just feels a bit too early to fully land on proper extension terms.

You can certainly understand where Arrieta is coming from in (reportedly) demanding a seven-year deal. When he won the Cy Young, he didn’t just get a physical award—he got significant added leverage. Reports circulated around camp that—during discussions with the Cubs brass—Arrieta had cited other Cy Young winners who received big contracts after receiving their award:

It’s true, many of the pitchers which Arrieta was reported to have cited were extended (and paid) handsomely after they were able to add “Cy Young Winner” to their resume. But these cases were a bit different. They included highly competitive free agent markets fueled by bidding wars and stronger track records than Arrieta currently holds.

Though it was an incredible campaign, the Cubs realize that one good season (2014) coupled with one great season Arrieta is unlikely to replicate (2015) simply isn’t the kind of resume upon which you award a 30-year-old pitcher the same type of contract as Clayton Kershaw, who had seven seasons of sub-3.00 and even sub-2.00 ERAs on his record, or Felix Hernandez, who was 28 at the time of his extension. This becomes especially true when there is no rush to extend a player who is still building that resume, as is the case with Arrieta.

Although many factors come into play when crafting a contract, one that gets large consideration is health relative to the aging process. In a piece on FanGraphs earlier this month, Eno Sarris compared how well ground ball pitchers and sinker ball pitchers age in relation to “everyone else.” Keep in mind that though Arrieta is a notorious strike thrower, he is also a heavy ground ball pitcher, posting a 56 percent ground ball rate in 2015.

Sarris begins the piece with a rather definitive quote from sabermetrics pioneer Bill James, who writes that ground ball pitchers are “great for two years, and then they blow up. Always.”

While the injury history did not directly support this claim, it prompted Sarris to ask the question, “Do ground ball pitchers age poorer than the regular population? And is it a function of sinker usage, since more internal rotation on the shoulder could lead to more shoulder problems and decreased performance even if it doesn’t show in injury data?”

While I highly suggest reading the article for yourself, I will tell you that the gist of the conclusion doesn’t look to be a compelling argument for Arrieta and his fellow ground ball pitchers when it comes to long-term extensions.

Around age of 30, which Arrieta just reached, ground ball heavy pitchers showed a sharper decline in performance than pitchers that are under the “everyone else” umbrella. “They add four runs to their peak RA/9 two years earlier than the average pitcher. The attrition is much worse, too: between 32 and 34 years old, 34% of all innings pitched leave the game,” Sarris wrote.

Now, this isn’t to say that Arrieta is going to turn into a Verlander-esque train wreck after becoming a 30-year-old ground ball pitcher—predictive analysis is simply a well-educated estimate. But this type of research simply adds to the discourse that arises when clubs attempt to formulate a massive extension for a 30 year-old pitcher, and it’s certainly the type of apprehension that led the Cubs to reportedly max out at five years in talks this spring.

But every case is different, and perhaps the Cubs could be wrong to so quickly assume that Arrieta would begin a slow decline in his 30s just as your typical pitcher would, be it a sinker ball pitcher or any other type.

“Arrieta should not be held to the same standard as every other pitcher in baseball,” wrote Sahadev Sharma in a piece here at BP Wrigleyville on Arrieta in October, touching on his unique ability to transcend expectations and his aptitude for maximizing the benefits his health regimen has for his game. So to assume that Arrieta is set to follow the career trajectory of the pitchers in Sarris’ piece would be foolish.

Arrieta is also fiercely competitive and understands that especially with the cooling of negotiation talks, the fate of his contract extension relies heavily on the outcome of his performance in the coming 2016 season. My conclusion is that neither party was right or wrong to end discussions on an extension—the talks are simply a bit premature. Arrieta is perhaps jumping too quickly at the opportunity to reap the rewards of his newfound market value while he’s still relatively young, while the Cubs would like to see Arrieta demonstrate consistency for a bit longer before agreeing to a long-term contract.

I wouldn’t expect to hear much more about the negotiation process until the conclusion of the 2016 season, though. “I think we’re kind of on the same page with not wanting to have a ton of conversation as the season gets near,” Arrieta said last Tuesday.

As far as everyone’s inevitable trepidation upon hearing that talks between the parties have cooled, it seems to go without saying that Arrieta and the Cubs will explore multiple avenues in attempts to try and reach a mutual agreement before Arrieta hits the open market.

“Everyone knows I want to stay in Chicago, but it’s got to be the right deal.” Arrieta told reporters. And from the Cubs standpoint, Theo Epstein told reporters in October that “He fit in tremendously well in this organization. He made a great impact on the field and off and we love having him around.”

So for now, the focus remains on the season ahead. And with Arrieta on the mound, it’s bound to be another good one.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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