Jake Arrieta in 2016 Is Just Being Human

Everyone admits it. 2015 on the North side of Chicago was special, in a way 2016 won’t ever be able to match. After a first half in which the Cubs saw their future suddenly become their reality on the field each night, they simultaneously experienced the emergence of their new ace, Jake Arrieta.

In 2015, Arrieta posted the second-lowest ERA in baseball at 1.77, and in the second half of the season, when Arrieta went on his historic run, he posted an ERA of just 0.75, which beat out Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson for the best second-half ERA in history. Gibson’s was 1.19 in 1968.

“That’s like sacred ground for me,” Maddon said last October of Arrieta beating Gibson’s record. “If he’s beating Bob Gibson, that’s pretty impressive.” Certainly it was sacred: Maddon grew up a Cardinals fan for most of his life.

Baseball knows how this story ended. Arrieta’s run was one of the most dominant and momentous things that baseball had witnessed in the game’s recent history, and even reminiscing on it now brings a different sort of nostalgia to one’s mind. Arrieta took home the National League Cy Young Award, beating out then-Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, only seeming to serve as confirmation in the minds of Cubs fans and baseball enthusiasts everywhere that this was in fact real, and something that baseball had stood by and watched unfold in amazement.

But that’s history now, quite literally. After all the nostalgia melts away, baseball is simply left with a question that made everyone shift in their seats a bit. Where does Arrieta go from here, and where does baseball expect him to go from here? The thing that made 2015 so magical for Arrieta was that the bar was set to heights that are nearly impossible to obtain as a goal. Things like this aren’t attempted, they just happen. Everyone with a cool head went into the 2016 season reminding baseball folks that the odds of Arrieta nearing that plateau again in 2016 were miniscule at best, and to temper their expectations. But the taste of Arrieta’s 1.77 ERA and Cy Young Award left a lasting impression on the minds baseball fans.

Arrieta started 2016 with a strong effort, a second career no-hitter, after which he lowered his ERA below a full run to 0.87. It was just his third start of the season, and Wrigleyville began side-eyeing anyone who said not to expect a repeat of what they’d witnessed just under a year ago from Arrieta.

But here we are now, and this August, baseball is having different thoughts on Arrieta, thoughts that have fluctuated from euphoria, to worry and panic, to—hopefully for most—level-headedness.

Show anyone in baseball the raw numbers Arrieta is posting this year without context, without them knowing it’s Arrieta in question, and ask them if they’re worried about said pitcher. They’ll hesitate to see where your concern stems from. For example:

Raw Numbers 2.62 3.30 3.64 78.5 25.4 9.6 7.8
MLB Rank 3rd 5th 18th 8th 9th 35th 4th

*All totals queried for min. 150 IP

At first glance almost anyone would brush off major concern or fret about said pitcher’s success this season. Pitcher X is fine. One of the only mildly concerning pieces of information here is the high walk rate, the highest walk rate in baseball among qualified pitchers, which is in turn inflating Pitcher X’s DRA by a solid run, and keeping his FIP nearly as high.

Of course when you reveal that this is Jake Arrieta’s totals on the season, everybody panics a little. Because these totals aren’t 2015. They aren’t even 2014, but actually, most of his stats from 2016 are still comparable to 2014. Take a look:

2014 2.53 2.26 2.42 74.2 27.2 6.7 4.5
2016 2.62 3.30 3.64 78.5 25.4 9.6 7.8

Notice the ones that are different. The issue that Arrieta is facing isn’t news, it’s been whispered among baseball all season once it became apparent that Arrieta was facing new challenges a year after his dominant success. It’s the walks. The walk rate has become a significant issue, and is influencing all of the totals that are making baseball folks across the board a bit concerned.

Arrieta is also posting the highest HR/FB rate he has since his days with the Orioles, the ones in which baseball would like to chose to forget.

What do these two issues that Arrieta is facing normally stem from? Control issues, something that has been a hindrance in the past of the success baseball finally saw from Arrieta on the North side.

“I need to be in more pitcher-friendly counts. That’s really the summary from my perspective—is to get after it a little bit more and force the issue.” Arrieta told the media in July, which essentially boils down to Arrieta admitting that he needs to keep his pitches in the zone more often than he has been. 

Control issues, which stem from poor mechanics, are what nearly forced Arrieta to take off his jersey for good back in Baltimore. They’re rearing their ugly head again, but it’s not to the point that it should be a major concern. 

“I’m resilient, I’ll bounce back. I’ll get to the point where I was early in the season and last year soon. This won’t continue. It’s frustrating it has gone for this long of a period. We’ll make it right.” Arrieta said in July. So baseball should trust him.

Arrieta displayed that he hasn’t strayed too far off the beaten path in 2016 during his last start in San Diego, one in which he went eight strong innings for the first time since May 14th at Wrigley Field. Arrieta may have walked three during the outing at Petco Park, but only allowed two hits, and what really matters—zero earned runs.

For those of you thinking, “But what about the outing in which he allowed seven walks?” That was uncharacteristic even for the 2016 walk-prone version of Arrieta, and there’s a simple answer for it. Not all of the blame is solely on Arrieta for those walks. Catcher Willson Contreras was behind the plate catching Arrieta for the first time during that outing, and as is pointed out in this piece from The Athletic, Contreras is still adjusting to all the members of the Cubs pitching staff, which include the nuances of catching Arrieta (Contreras hasn’t been able to get as many low strikes called for Arrieta as he needs in order to keep his walk rates to a minimum, something Montero is extremely efficient in doing).

No, Arrieta is not repeating history, he’s not breaking Major League records this season, and the imperfections that once almost led him away from the game are peaking through, reminding baseball fans that no one is perfect. But Arrieta is still a top 10 pitcher in baseball, and there shouldn’t be any major concern about him. He’s simply being something he wasn’t in 2015 — human. Perhaps it’s also a bit of fatigue from pitching over 70 innings more than he ever had in his career in 2015. Perhaps it’s just a fluky combination of a bunch of small factors. Whatever it may be, there’s no need to worry, Arrieta is still a dominant force, and side-by-side comparisons can often be misleading.

Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports.

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