What to do about a hometown boy made good?

“You can struggle for a little while. It’s going to happen. If a guy hits .200 for a while, it doesn’t mean he’s a .200 hitter.” – Jake Arrieta

At the prime of his powers, Jake Arrieta threw the best ballgame I’ve ever seen in person.

Better than Nolan Ryan. Better than Randy Johnson. Better even than the Boston prime of Roger Clemens.

On September 22, 2015, I was one of 36,000-odd fans who settled in to watch the latter stages of Arrieta’s magical late summer that year.

I was sitting 20-odd rows up from between first and home at Wrigley, which for the first couple innings distracted me from the baseball with its wonder. Kris Bryant, I recall, homered, and the scoreboard noted how he’d just set the Cubs rookie record. That impressed me.

Arrieta riveted me.

The leadoff hitter doubled off him; it was one of only three hits Milwaukee would get off him that game. I went back and looked it up, to refresh my memory, and the numbers were more impressive than even I recalled. He struck out 11, walked one, and threw 85 of 123 pitches for strikes in going nine and shutting out the Brewers. More than a quarter of the strikes he threw (22) were Brewer swings and misses. It was his 20th win of the season, and utter domination.

The outing lowered his ERA on the season to 1.88—he’d finish at 1.77. His numbers and yeoman work for the feel-good Cubs were good enough to beat Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young award and place him sixth in the MVP voting:

ERA IP ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1.77 229 215 2.35 0.865 5.9 0.4 1.9 9.3 4.92

That Jake Arrieta has shown flashes of himself now and then since 2015, but I suspect the deep usage that season may be to blame, regardless of his famed Pilates-based conditioning regimen (the Cubs went deep into October, riding their ace all the way, until they fell to the Mets in a 4-game LCS sweep).

For 229 innings that season, over 33 starts, he threw 3,438—an average of 104 pitches an outing. Indeed, in 23 of 33 starts, Arrieta went over 100, maxing out at 123 on that September night I watched him in Chicago.

The reasons may be myriad, but since that epic season, he’s never been the same.

For one, expecting him to repeat that kind of season is ridiculous. Even Kershaw would have called that epic, and he has a career ERA of 2.36.

But that epic season was really a half-epic season culminating in an epic streak of dominance. If you believe in “The Zone”—and I do—Arrieta was in it from August 1st on.

Through the first half of that season, Arrieta’s line was very good, but not Cy-worthy:

  ERA WHIP SO9 SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
1st Half 2.66 0.986 9.1 4.92 0.216 0.262 0.327 0.590

The second half, he was Bob Gibson, 1968 redux:

  ERA WHIP SO9 SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS
2nd Half 0.75 0.727 9.5 4.91 0.148 0.204 0.205 0.409

In 2016 and 2017, we saw Arrieta fall to earth a bit, and become merely a good to very good starter; still contending for top-of-the-rotation honors for most teams, but not 2015’s second half stud:

Year ERA IP ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2016 3.1 197.1 135 3.52 1.084 6.3 0.7 3.5 8.7 2.5
2017 3.53 168.1 123 4.16 1.218 8 1.2 2.9 8.7 2.96

 

Year BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
2016 0.194 0.277 0.306 0.583 0.242
2017 0.235 0.305 0.411 0.716 0.279

Here’s a wild idea: maybe the outliers aren’t 2016 and 2017; maybe the outlier is second-half Arrieta, just like Brady Anderson hitting 50 homers in 1996, a quarter of his 15-year career total.

We’ve come too often to see slumps as outliers for pitchers, but assume streaks are adjustments, or guys “turning the corner”. Again, I believe Jake Arrieta was in The Zone in 2015 and may never get there again.

Maybe he’s settled into being a very solid starter, occasionally with ace stuff, all dependent on command.

Jake vs. Yu

They’re more than just the best two starters on the market today; Yu Darvish is also a former Ranger for whom fans have—how shall we say—not exactly been clamoring to see a return. Arrieta is the nature alternative, if you’re going to go after an ace now (and that’s an “if” we’ll get to in a bit).

Let’s look at some key areas and compare trends between Arrieta and Darvish:

The most basic and least valuable of stats, but at a poor-man’s statistical level, it tells us how well hitters hit each man. What this shows is that, since Arrieta’s breakout in 2014 (Age 28 season) he and Yu are trending almost identically, with Arrieta better by roughly the same margin, year over year.

The concern with both is that, since their respective milestone seasons (Arrieta’s move to Chicago and Darvish’s return from Tommy John), the numbers trended down for just a tick, then slowly rose.

Arrieta showed a considerably worse jump up in 2017, reaching as close to the league average as he’s been since Baltimore. Darvish still has a while to go to hit league average, and unlike Jake, his could be a one-year spike versus a trend.

Jake’s got a solid two-year trend going, which is enough to make me thing, at best, that line flattens out next year, and at worst, we hit league average:

WHIP, to me, is the greatest indicator of how well a pitcher controls the opposing hitters. It factors how well a pitcher does the most important thing he can do, as far as run-prevention correlation goes—keep hitters off base. Arrieta’s trend isn’t great, and it’s more extreme than Darvish’s gradual increase. So what’s that tell us?

A downward trend

Two trends are telling in this area with Jake: the hitters’ slash lines, and his zone charts.

Let’s take slash line trends first; here’s 2014 (first year with Chicago) through 2017 for Arrieta (ages 28-31 on the chart above):

Year BA OBP SLG OPS
2014 0.203 0.259 0.276 0.535
2015 0.185 0.236 0.271 0.507
2016 0.194 0.277 0.306 0.583
2017 0.235 0.305 0.411 0.716

What really concerns me is the heavy spike in slugging from 2016 to 2017. Zone ratings bear that out. Velocity tends to increase as OPS goes up, and BB/SO rate goes down. To take the latter first, let’s look at that same year’s walk to SO rate against OPS:

  2014 2015 2016 2017
SO/W 4.07 4.92 2.5 2.96
OPS 0.535 0.507 0.583 0.716

Simply put, as his SO/W rate regresses, hitters hit him harder. That might seem intuitive, but it tells you a lot about whether a guy is missing in or out of the zone. With Arrieta’s sharp spike in slugging percentage contribution to OPS, relative to on-base percentage, it means he’s getting hit harder, more so than walking more guys, to bring that number up:

Zone trends between 2015 and 2017 bear that out. Against both sides of the plate, here’s Arrieta’s zone areas, side by side, and the deltas from year to year:

What’s interesting is Jake’s regression from 2015 to 2016 shows only two zones of marked difference: what hitters do on pitches up and in the zone, on each corner, and considerable decrease in batted ball velocity on the upper right corner of the zone.

That upper range, however, is the clear indicator of hitters hitting the high pitch—that is, the easiest pitch to elevate and drive for extra bases—thus, the higher slugging percentage. He saw a huge 12.8 MPH change on the upper right of the zone, and every mid-and-above pitch saw an increase in velocity.

Why? The reason comes down to ONE thing: Jake Arrieta’s velocity is dropping, and he’s getting hit for it:

Add it all up, and hitters are getting around a bit better, his command is a bit less sharp, and he’s missing as much in the zone as out. Typically, hitters waited on high pitches and hit them, and because his control wasn’t AS sharp as 2016 (or especially 2015) he couldn’t hammer the lower-exit-velocity offerings low in and out of the strike zone.

Do the Rangers pull the trigger? Should they?

So, what’s all this mean for 2018, the years beyond, and the odds (and advisability) of an Arrieta deal.

Well, first, I don’t think we’ll ever see a streak like the second half of 2015 from Jake again. I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, like Carl Yastrzemski’s September in 1967, Orel Hershiser’s late summer and fall of 1988, or Matt Holliday’s September and October in 2007.

Seasons like that are black swans; they’re outliers. They skew the data and color our expectations way outside the lines.

I think, based on all this data and the trends we see, that Jake Arrieta over the second half of his career will be somewhere between the Cubs ace and the Orioles warrior-in-waiting, with a lean towards the former.

Baseball Reference projects the following 2018 stats for him, per the formula we outlined in the relief pitcher options analysis from a few days ago.

I think, with a plus-minus of 15% change either way, they’re on the mark:

ERA IP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
3.35 164 1.159 7.4 1 3.1 8.7 2.84

A caveat: I do think, if healthy, Arrieta is a 200-inning horse. I don’t think he likes giving up the ball, and his satisfaction is going to decrease rapidly if he sees the pen blow a few leads (and this one can do that).

So, I think those numbers might trend towards the wrong side of that 15% variance the further over, say, 210 innings he goes, but I think it’s worth it because the man’s head must be right to be strong all season.

The final analysis

Should the Rangers sign him? A few considerations before we get there.

Understand, first, there’s a non-monetary cost to Arrieta. The Rangers would lose a post-second round draft pick to the Cubs for Arrieta. For Texas this year, that’d be a decent but not high price, because it would be in the Compensation B area; for a team building on youth, you have to think long and hard before signing a qualified guy. This almost puts me over the top in saying stay away from Arrieta, but I’m still going to look at scenarios where I might do it.

As far as injuries go, I’m not terribly worried. Arrieta is very muscular, but he’s well-known for his conditioning and Pilates devotion, so his is a balanced and flexible muscularity; frankly, I think he’s as well-conditioned as any pitcher I’ve seen. So, on that front, I’d be for it.

The X Factor

Of his time in Baltimore, Arrieta said:

“There were so many things in Baltimore not many people know about. I had struggles with my pitching coach. A lot of guys did.”

That coach, Rick Adair, was a Rangers minor league coordinator from 2005 to 2008. He worked under Buck Showalter, whose style (and thus the style of his coaches) was known to rub a lot of guys wrong. Buck and his disciples are very old-school.

The good news is, while Jeff Banister has a lot of old school baseball guy in him, I’d never mistake him for Buck Showalter. Similarly, from what I can tell, you wouldn’t mistake Doug Brocail for Rick Adair.

So, the x-factor is Doug Brocail and Jake Arrieta being copacetic.

Frankly, I think Brocail shares a lot of the qualities that Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Chicago the last few years, former major leaguer Chris Bosio, brought to the job.

If I’m the Rangers, I have a dinner and meeting with Arrieta; they’ll go wherever he wants; there’s tons of healthy food options in the Metroplex.

Get a corner booth, nice and cozy, away from the crowds, and talk frankly about every angle of philosophy and approach, from JD and team building to Jeff Banister and the clubhouse to Brocail and the day-to-day aspects of being a Rangers guy.

If they’re comfortable with Jake being Jake, beard and all, attitude on display, and eyes wild as fire. If they’re comfortable equipping the trainer’s room with the latest Pilates equipment and letting him bring in his conditioning guy.

And if they’re comfortable he buys into the program, fully, then I trust the brain trust. I think Jake Arreita well-coached mentally and mechanically will keep himself fit to pitch, every day, and will go as long into the game as it takes to win.

That’s a guy I’ll build a rotation around, and have in my clubhouse every day. He and Cole Hamels, if the Rangers can re-sign Cole to a short-term extension after next season, would be a dangerous veteran 1-2 punch along some of the kids coming up and future trade and FA targets.

A question of “If”

So, IF the Rangers don’t love the draft depth, and IF they can get the deal short-term and high dollar, versus longer years, I would make a pitch to Arrieta.

But again, it’s only if they’re not confident of their second pick target, and only for a short, rich deal. Not a long deal, dollars be damned.

Short and market to over-market is fine. Four years max. Three years preferably.

I would ideally structure, say, a 3-year, $78M deal as follows:

2018 2019 2020
$28.0M $26.0M $24.0M

Is that too rich? Yes. But it’s not my money, so I can go nuts. Realistically, though, were it my money, I like front-loading veteran contracts, so they aren’t an albatross in the team’s out years, and they don’t kill your budget when you’re building again towards contending for a title, as I’ve projected here before, in or around 2020.

Will I be hurt if the Rangers don’t get Arrieta, and go for a second-tier arm instead? No.

Do I think he’ll take 3 years, even at an extended overall annual value? No.

But I wouldn’t rule it out.

Here’s my pitch: be the foundation of the last push for an Adrian Beltre World Series title and be a hometown hero.

The odds are, this won’t work. It won’t for one simple reason: Scott Boras always gets top dollar and top years, and he’ll get it somewhere. It just won’t be here.

And there’s a wild card to all this. A critical warning: if the deal goes to five years, I walk away. Even for less money, even front-loaded.

I would pay more for three years, and market value for four years. But I don’t trust a five-year contract on a guy his age, with the miles the 2015 season and 2016 stretch run put on his arm, regardless of conditioning. Even four years gives me reflux.

Why? Because his velocity is trending the wrong direction, and that trend doesn’t tend to reverse with age, even with a guy in his shape. Nolan didn’t go down to go back up; he stayed up. The last fastball he threw before his ulner collateral ligament snapped—at age 46, after 27 seasons—clocked in at 98 miles per hour.

Jake Arrieta is not a finesse pitcher, and I doubt he ever will be. He’s like Kevin Brown out there, a bull who goes right at the batter, and must be able to get the low and high fastball, alike, by hitters.

I trust he can do that for another two years, and I’d risk his ability to push himself through three, but probably not four, and definitely not five seasons.

Even Arrieta knows this; to quote Jake:

“I think the average MLB career now is just a few years. The quote that has always resonated with me is ‘We’re going to be former players a lot longer than we were current players.’” 

Amen, and so I’d say: here’s my offer. Short, but sweet. It’ll set you up for those “former player” years quite well. Take it or leave it.

Odds are, Arrieta leaves it. Or, rather, his agent, Mr. Boras does.

And like any good card player, I never play a hand I can’t fold and walk away from, no questions asked.

For Arrieta, I’d have to be holding a pretty good hand to play with Boras and risk the possible downward trends from Arrieta, given the price in youth, dollars, and years he might command. I just don’t think it’s a winning hand.

The verdict

Jake is a very close “pass”.

It comes down to youth, timing, and trends. This is not the Rangers year, and next year probably isn’t either.

Save the dollars, maybe in a bit to re-sign Hamels in his later years. That’s a guy who has learned how to win without his max velocity, so long as command and velocity separation on the change and curve stay right.

Arrieta hasn’t learned to do that, and his velocity trends and other metrics are all headed in the absolute wrong direction. I tend to think that’s a sign, not an aberration, for a guy past 30.

Go after less pricey qualified guys like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, or even our old friend, who wouldn’t cost a pick: Andrew Cashner. The price is much more right there.

Like any good player, you have to know the hand your dealt, and the Rangers are better to walk away and play this game another day, when the cards are stacked in their favor.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington. Along with John Manaloor, he co-owns Shutdown Inning, and serves as Editor in Chief for SDI.
He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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