The Cubs and Jake Arrieta lost a weird one at Wrigley today but finished up what was, overall, an extremely successful homestand. Let’s recap:
Top Play (WPA): Arrieta’s second inning double, which he hit 378 feet to center before it popped out of Michael Bourn’s glove up against the ivy, was the top offensive play of the game for the Cubs (+0.138). Miguel Montero scored from first, making the score 2-1 at the time. It was a high, high fly ball that Arrieta used his considerable muscle to drive as far as he did. Cubs pitchers—particularly Arrieta and Jason Hammel—continue to perform relatively well at the plate.
On the other hand, the fact that a pitcher had the biggest play of the game offensively shows what kind of day it was for the Cubs offense. Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward each had a day off, and the Cubs did seem to miss them. Diamondbacks starter Patrick Corbin pounded the zone all day, hammering the corners and inducing thirteen groundouts in seven innings of two-run ball. Besides the Arrieta double and a sixth inning home run by Javier Baez, the Cubs never really threatened much during Corbin’s outing. The Cubs’ lineup is tough, but pitchers that go right after them do seem to find a fair amount of success, as long as they are hitting their spots. The Cubs won’t chase balls, but you can get them off balance on pitches in the strikezone from time to time. That seemed to be what happened today.
Bottom Play (WPA): After Arrieta struck out the side in the first, Arizona opened the second with three consecutive hits. Chris Herrmann and Chris Owings each singled into right-center, and then Yasmany Tomas got inside an Arrieta fastball, and lined it a little deeper into the right-centerfield gap, bringing home both baserunners, and making the score 2-0 early on (-0.158). It was Arizona’s only extra-base hit on the day, but behind Corbin’s excellent outing, it was enough.
Key Moment: Arrieta was inexplicably allowed to hit for himself in the sixth inning, with no one out and Miguel Montero on first. The Cubs were trailing 3-1 at that point, and, despite his first inning double, having a professional hitter take the at-bat for a pitcher who was sure to come out of the game seemed like an obvious move. But no: Joe Maddon decided to let Arrieta hit for himself. Arrieta sac bunted Montero to second before the top of the order grounded out twice to end the threat. This seemed like a pretty glaring oversight by Maddon. He could have conceivably been trying to save bench bats for later, but he was presented with a good situation for one, with no guarantee another better situation would come later in the game. With players like Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward on the bench, this decision becomes all the more confusing.
Cubs pitchers have hit well in the early going, but this isn’t a reason to give them too much leeway—especially if Arrieta was just going to bunt anyway. We can’t observe the counterfactual and know for sure if this decision was actually a key in the Cubs’ loss, but it certainly didn’t put the Cubs in the best position to win.
Trend to Watch: Some people might suggest that Arrieta is trending downward from his utterly untouchable dominant peak, and, in a way, they might be right. Regression in results might be occuring because after 23 consecutive wins in Arrieta-started games, that is really the only direction in which the results can trend. What days like today remind us is that even the most untouchable pitchers actually are touchable, and that, even as much as Arrieta’s performance over the last year is seemingly evidence to the contrary, any MLB team can beat any pitcher on any day.
But! What we shouldn’t take away from today is that Arrieta is slipping. He did labor a bit at times—it took him 108 pitches to get through five innings—but the five innings he did pitch were pretty dominant. His stuff was electric; he had twelve strikeouts on the day, and only allowed ten balls to be put in play. The problem? Nine of those ten balls fell in for hits: a .900 BABIP against on the afternoon. Arrieta was due some regression from his .213 season BABIP, but this sort of bizarre stat line start is just as anomalous Jake Arrieta’s performance over the past season. If some of those hits had found gloves, he likely could have gone significantly deeper into the game.
The sequencing of the hits also burned him—three hits in a row in the second netted the Diamondbacks two runs, and three hits in the fifth got them another. This start, then, shouldn’t dimish Arrieta (who still has a 1.80 ERA on the season) in our eyes at all, but it will serve as a good reminder that baseball is weird, and that even the best pitchers will have days when they need some serious offensive help from time to time.
One more stat on how weird today’s start was: Arrieta is only the fifth pitcher with 12 strikeouts in a five-inning start since 1913.
Coming Next: The Cubs went 8-2 on the homestand, and they now head out on their first East Coast trip of the season Monday. They will head to Philadelphia first before playing three in both Atlanta and Washington. The Cubs swept the Phillies last weekend, and will face the same trio of starters this week. They will look to continue their success against Adam Morgan (who they roughed up for six runs in four innings), Jerad Eickhoff (four runs in six innings), and Vincent Velasquez (seven runs in four and two-thirds). Jon Lester (2.29 ERA, 3.74 DRA, 93 cFIP) will start Monday, coming off his dominant complete game ten strikeout, no walk performance against the Dodgers. First pitch will be at 6:05 Central on ESPN2.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports