Mo v. Fade: Can Jake Arrieta Use 2015 as a Springboard or is He Doomed to Regress?
How you sound, B? You’re better off a quitter
I’m on the mound, G, and it’s a no-hitter
-Wu-Tang Clan, Clan in Da Front
Though they preceded Jake Arrieta’s utterly dominant second half by nearly a dozen years, GZA’s (for those not familiar with the WTC, it’s pronounced “jizza”) lines may as well have been the nascent ace’s motto. True, the hirsute hurler completed only one actual no-hitter last season, but there was a sense that he was capable of blanking his opponent every time he took the mound. An Arrieta start was appointment viewing for everyone around baseball. Well, unless you were one of the haplessly ineffectual hitters who had to stand in the box and watch impotently with his bat in his hands.
By this point the absurd statistics have been repeated almost to the point of banality. Yet, I continue to recite them because it’s like a Pilates reformer for the mind. It is my sincere hope that I’ll eventually be able to stretch my mental faculties enough that I can wrap my head around exactly what Arrieta accomplished.
Zero. Point. Seven. Five.
The main obstacle to my comprehension is the notion that something so aberrantly brilliant can’t possibly be duplicated. As I’m wont to brag to anyone who will listen, I once scored 400 points in Magic Johnson’s Fast Break, a little-known NES gem. And that’s with two-minute quarters and a running clock. I’ll allow a moment or two for the flames of your admiration to die down before I continue.
Having thus achieved the peak of athletic achievement, I would forever struggle to reach the mountaintop once more. I’m not really sure we can put Jake Arrieta’s 2015 season on par with my MJFB performance, but what is an analogy if not an imperfect comparison between two otherwise incongruous concepts. You can see then why I would expect Arrieta to fall short in the Sisyphian task of replicating an historic campaign.
Heretofore, I’d based my skepticism on little else but, well, skepticism. But this is baseball, a sport replete with far too many figures and fractions to simply lean on what my expanding gut tells me. Then again, this is Cubs baseball, and a healthy dose of dubiousness kinda goes with the territory.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’d like you to participate in a little visualization exercise with me. Imagine, if you will, that we’re placing the seasons in question beneath a bell jar. Now picture me turning on the pump to remove all air from the jar in order to create an unadulterated vacuum within which to examine the numbers.
I’m sure some of you have noticed Ferdie Schupp, whose ERA is lower than Arrieta’s record-setting mark. But since only 10 of his 22 second-half appearances were starts, he’s not really qualified. I decided to include his numbers anyway though because I felt the innings total was high enough. The goal here is to determine whether these pitchers were able to harness the momentum of those second halves and carry it forward into successful encores.
As you can quickly see, none of the men above* were able to duplicate their dominant second halves. If you look again at the first chart, you’ll note that each of them benefited from a significant amount of luck, as evidenced by their Fielding Independent Pitching stats relative to ERA. The variation between FIP and ERA was anywhere from 0.71 (Pete Alexander) to 1.92 (Kris Medlen).
That luck factor dropped dramatically in the seasons following those in which we saw ERAs of 1.12 and below. Furthermore, we can see how the differences between FIP and ERA shrunk dramatically and began to hew much closer to each pitcher’s career totals. Essentially, each of these pitchers had a horseshoe up his…well, they all rode a significant wave of good fortune during their respective big halves.
Okay, great, so what does that mean for Jake Arrieta in 2016? Before I get into that, let me present you with one more chart:
As we can see, most of our subjects performed quite well when we compare ERA in that full encore season to the mark they carried for their respective careers. The only two that did not best their lifetime number were Medlen and Seaver, though even they remained within a few hundredths of a point.
A bit ago, I had asked you to visualize a scenario in which we had removed as many outside factors as possible from the consideration of the numbers. But the thing is, baseball isn’t played in a vacuum, not even in the sterile confines of The Trop. So now we let the air back in.
Whatever the opposite of Murphy’s Law is, that’s what governed Jake Arrieta’s most reason season. Let’s face it, the guy had so much luck…how much luck did he have? He had so much luck he could have been the Indianapolis Colts quarterback. Hey, if the horseshoe fits.
As anyone who has tried to prove a basic scientific hypothesis can tell you, it’s necessary to isolate variables in order to get a clean, repetitive result. In Arrieta’s case, however, there are just so many different factors at play. Given the great degree of serendipity from which Arrieta benefited in 2015, and the numerous variables that contributed to it, he will be hard-pressed to arrive at the same result this season.
First, we might want to consider age. Among the group above, only Chandler (36) joins Arrieta as being 30 or older during the follow-up season to his great second half. The remainder of the players ranged from 26 to 29, which may not seem like much to the weekend warrior but is a veritable lifetime for a professional athlete.
Speaking of age, it’s quite interesting to see several distinct periods of baseball represented in the players being studied. Can you imagine Arrieta uncorking that wicked slider/cutter hybrid on an unsuspecting hitter one hundred years ago? He’d likely have been stoned as a warlock by the bewildered onlookers.
But what happens if that pitch isn’t quite as illicit this season? What if it goes from late-night Cinemax feature to just another Disney cartoon? And not the hidden sexual stuff either, but, like, surface-level wholesomeness that neither frightens nor titillates. Listen, I find slutter-shaming as repugnant as the next guy, but the fact of the matter is that a simple slip of his unique grip could allow excellence to slide through Arrieta’s grasp.
Another issue with that unorthodox offering is the manner in which he delivers it. Every pitch, actually. That cross-body motion evokes images of another would-be great with whom Cubs fans are quite familiar. Fond of too. But I don’t think anyone wants to see Jake Arrieta fight through the same arm troubles that derailed Kerry Wood’s career. Factor in an innings total that exceeded his previous career high by 72.1 frames and the only thing some can manage to get between clenched teeth is their fingernails.
So that, uh, that sounds pretty bleak, huh? I mean, chalking a Cy Young season up to luck and then writing about all the ways that fickle mistress plans to torture her lover doesn’t have quite the effect of a fan-made hype video. On the other hand, I’ve always been fond of the idea that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I can’t think of a player more apt to ride the rapids of the confluence of those two rivers than the one leading the Cubs’ rotation. That’s a fancy way of saying this is a guy who makes his own luck.
Arrieta may be heading into his age-30 season, but his arm isn’t quite so old. Until 2014, he hadn’t even exceeded 120 innings in a Major League season. After throwing 156.2 innings for the Cubs in 2014, Arrieta made a huge leap by tallying 229 last year. While the increased workload was evident in his final outing, there was no noticeable fatigue as he cruised past his career-high down the stretch.
Much has been made about the fitness freak’s workout habits, including right here on this very site, so I’ll not bring the PETA folks a-knocking at my EIC’s door by belaboring that point. Even so, it’s impossible to overlook Arrieta’s intense preparation. But staying in shape isn’t the only way he’ll be able to insulate against regression, and it may not even be the primary reason for what I believe will be sustained performance.
For more on that, I will move from a dead horse to the reality that Arrieta is far from a one-trick pony. You’ve no doubt witnessed the challenges faced by pitchers who lean heavily on a single offering and then lose the feel for it (see Travis Wood and his own “cutter”), so it figures that a man who can command a variety of different pitches will find himself better able to overcome struggles with any individual weapon in his arsenal.
To that end, Arrieta is one of the most well-rounded pitchers in the game, something I pointed out in a piece for another publication a couple months back.
In terms of pitch value, [Arrieta’s] cutter was the best in baseball by a wide margin, saving an estimated 23.5 runs on the season. (Corey Kluber was 2nd with 15.1.) Only two other pitches — the fastballs of Clayton Kershaw (24.7) and Gerrit Cole (24.2) — saved more runs in 2015. For what it’s worth, Arrieta’s heater was worth 23.7.
Oh, and his curve and change were all outstanding as well.
Because different pitchers throw different pitches at different rates, it’s sometimes necessary to compare offerings on a standardized per-100-pitch scale in order to judge relative value. This is where Arrieta really stands out. By that measure, his fastball (1.36) was the best in the majors, barely edging out Clayton Kershaw (1.35). Meanwhile, Arrieta’s cutter (2.35) was far better than anyone else’s, with Shelby Miller’s impressive 2.05 holding second place. And he didn’t utilize them nearly as often, Arrieta’s curve and change both ranked seventh in all of baseball when adjusted for frequency.
Basically, Jake Arrieta had four pitches ranked among the top seven in Major League Baseball in terms of relative runs-saved value. To put that in perspective, no other pitcher appears in more than two of those top-10 rankings. Having such an array of devastating pitches enabled him to not only shift utilization based on the opponent, but how he was throwing each of them on a given day.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Oh, and about the delivery he uses for all those nasty pitches? According to Arrieta, he’s had the same motion since he was a kid. And while he readily acknowledges that some find it worrisome, he is quick to note that most lefties have similar cross-body deliveries without catching the same flack. As I think even Tom House might tell you at this point, there’s no such thing as perfect mechanics.
When it’s all said and done, the answer to the question of whether Arrieta will regress or repeat is…yes. Just as the Cubs could win fewer games in 2016 absent the mountains of luck on their side last season and still be a better team, Jake Arrieta can be just as good a pitcher without posting the same knee-buckling numbers.
I think, however, that we’ll see a bit of a slingshot effect as Arrieta is buoyed by both the confidence and experience he gained last season. Steamer projects him to post a 2.95 ERA against a 2.93 FIP, numbers that I believe skew a little conservative. In fact, I have no issue with an expectation of numbers in the 2.50 range on both counts. This is, after all, a man who might just be able to pull a little more luck out of his asana.
*We’ve got to remove Spud Chandler, who was called up for active duty in World War II after pitching one game in the 1944 season.