I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t think Jake Arrieta looked all that good Tuesday night. It didn’t start that way, though, as he opened the 1st inning with strikeouts of Starling Marte (swinging, slider) and Josh Bell (looking, sinker). The latter of those was particularly heartening, given Bell’s 1.632 OPS against Arrieta heading into the game.
But a closer look at the inning reveals some startling information, namely that the strike-three whiff by Marte was the only swing and miss Arrieta generated in the frame. The big left fielder took strike one and fouled off three pitches; Bell looked at three strikes after opening the at-bat with a 3-0 count. It was a trend that would continue throughout the next five innings.
Arrieta’s swinging-strike rate of 3.1 percent on the evening was the fifth-lowest he’s ever posted in a start and the second-lowest with the Cubs behind a paltry 2 percent over 6.2 innings against his former team on July 15. FanGraphs shows a 0 percent against the Nats in Arrieta’s third start with the Cubs, but Baseball Reference tells us he generated 10 whiffs that game.
Regardless of where it ranks, the fact remains that Arrieta generated only three swings and misses over the course of 97 pitches. I repeat, only louder and with a slightly incredulous tone: THREE SWINGS AND MISSES. That’s, like, kind of crazy. So are those results from the game in Baltimore that actually started Arrieta’s current run of second-half success.
In nine starts since the break, Arrieta is 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA, 3.00 K/BB, and only 0.64 HR/9 over 56.2 innings. He hasn’t allowed a home run in his last four starts despite allowing a higher BABIP (.250 vs. .218) and more hard contact (28.3 vs. 24.7 percent) than in the first five. And we’re talking about a sample that includes two starts in which Arrieta got a combined five whiffs.
Man, baseball is weird AF sometimes.
Pirates hitters made contact with 92.3 percent of Arrieta’s pitches Tuesday night, a number that jumps to 96 percent when we talk about pitches in the zone. Which means there were a lot of balls in play, nearly all of which found gloves. Oh, did I forget to mention that the former Cy Young winner only allowed two hits on the evening? Sorry, kinda got caught up in the other stuff.
Despite the lack of baserunners — Arrieta only walked two and hit John Jaso with a pitch — and a FanGraphs game score of 72 that was his third-best on the season, this outing didn’t appear to the naked eye nearly as dominating as the box score makes it seem. The Pirates twice got two men on with one out and failed to score, not to mention all that contact. I found myself hoping Joe Maddon wouldn’t get the idea that Arrieta was good to pitch the 7th.
Then again, I wasn’t necessarily hoping for Koji Uehara to be the replacement. There was just a sense that Arrieta was kind of scraping by and that the balls in play were finding gloves at an insanely high level. And based on the Pirates’ .063 BABIP, that’s exactly what was happening. There’s a certain point at which you just know you’ve pushed your luck as far as it will go.
On the flip side of all this is the fact that Arrieta got 19 called strikes Tuesday night as he played Ding, Dong, Ditch at both the front and back doors of Bucs batters. That’s not quite as many as opposing starter Chad Kuhl racked up against the Cubs (23), but Arrieta was able to leverage those looking strikes into defensive at-bats and harmless contact.
A start like this doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the bigger scheme and my breakdown of it was really only the result of some Twitter conversation about why Arrieta wasn’t out for the 7th inning. I do think it underscores the vast gulf between actually watching a performance and following via an app or even listening on the radio, though. I would also say that the dearth of swinging strikes is a trend that bears following as the season winds down.
Jake Arrieta great again? Yeah, maybe, but only grudgingly so.