Jake Arrieta returns to the scene of the sublime
By Cary Osborne
Jake Arrieta, who starts for the Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, again was the toughest pitcher to hit in 2016. He has led baseball two years running in lowest opponents’ batting average and fewest hits per nine innings.
But beyond the reigning Cy Young Award winner’s jump from a 1.77 ERA in 2015 to 3.10 in 2016, there are other signs that Arrieta was a different pitcher this season — which could be good news for the Dodgers, the team he no-hit in his last Dodger Stadium appearance (with a similar 5 p.m. start time) on August 30, 2015.
The biggest sign was his command/control issues. Arrieta’s walk rate jumped from 1.9 walks per nine inning in 2015 to 3.5.
A lot was written this year about Arrieta’s slider losing its effectiveness (including this from Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs) — and that appears to be the root of most of his troubles. But there’s also a slight difference with the results from his bread-and-butter pitch — his sinker.
Starting with the slider, numbers from Statcast show a big jump in the percentage of balls and a big drop in swings and misses (whiffs) from 2015 to 2016 with the slider. (The chart on the left is 2015 and 2016 is on the right.)
The sinker sees a slight uptick in balls percentage, fewer called strikes, more balls put in play and more hits.
Arrieta had 11 games in which he walked three or more batters and had a 3.29 ERA in those contests. He also led the NL with 16 wild pitches this year.
So where else can the Dodgers get to him? He doesn’t give up a lot of home runs, but his home rate went up from 0.4 per nine innings to 0.7. Batters hit Arrieta harder in 2016, with Statcast showing that their average exit velocity went up exactly 2 mph to 87.2.
Adrián González, Howie Kendrick, Carlos Ruiz, Josh Reddick and Joc Pederson are a combined 18 for 57 (.316) with three homers off him.
“We know he’s tough,” Chase Utley said about Arrieta on Sunday. “He’s got electric stuff. For every good pitcher you try to capitalize on their mistakes. They all make mistakes, some more than others, and you have to try to be ready for those mistakes and try to take advantage of those.”
For his part, Arrieta said Monday he is in better shape this October than 12 months ago.
“I think going through that last year has prepared myself as well as the rest of the guys mentally for a longer run this year,” Arrieta said, “and I think we’ve been able to handle the moments mentally a lot better, as well as physically. So personally moving forward, I think I’m in a much better place.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon noted that this was by design.
“Yeah, we definitely had that in mind,” Maddon said. “Last year was a heavy year for him workload-wise, and he handled it extremely well, obviously. But going into this season, I had a conversation with him, in the food room in Mesa in the very beginning, talking about, ‘Listen, you’re going to be upset with me sometimes taking you out of games a little bit earlier, but understand it’s going to pay off in the latter part of the season.’ … And he was on board, and we’ve been good all year.”