Jake Arrieta’s Looking ‘Ace’ Again

Welcome to BFN, Sean Guest

It’s easy to forget just how good Jake Arrieta was in 2015. In 33 starts, he won a career-best 22 games, with an ERA of 1.77 en route to the National League Cy Young. He also logged four complete games and three shutouts, while leading the upstart Chicago Cubs to 97 wins.

One of those complete games came against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Wild Card game. Even though the Cubs hadn’t won in the postseason in 12 years, Arrieta was the coolest guy at PNC Park that October evening, allowing just five hits while striking out 11 in nine innings pitched.

It was a defining moment for the Cubs, who went on to end their 108-year World Series drought the following season. Arrieta was solid that year too, winning 18 of 31 games, with an ERA of 3.10. But, following a mediocre campaign in 2017, he refused the Cubs’ $17.4 million qualifying offer and became a free agent.

Unfortunately for him, the market wasn’t particularly competitive that summer. So, after struggling to find a buyer, he eventually signed a modest three-year, $75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. The deal featured a player option in year three and made him the third-highest paid pitcher in the National League but had a negative impact on his production, as he went 10-11 over the course of the season with an ERA of 3.96. His final nine starts were particularly bad, as a knee injury contributed heavily to a 1-5 run with a 6.35 ERA in that time. His new team struggled too, winning just 80 games in 2018 – good enough for third in the NL East.

Arrieta had surgery to fix his knee back in January, while the Phillies added catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura in trades, and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, closer David Robertson and, of course, Bryce Harper in free agency.

The moves made the already good Phillies even better and, thus far, they’ve had a positive impact on Arrieta’s game too. In four starts, he’s gone 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA. And his best outing of the young season came this week in the Phillies’ 3-2 win over the New York Mets, as he allowed just six hits (four of which were infield hits) over eight innings.

The key to his success thus far: a renewed emphasis on his changeup. In 2018, he used it just 18% of the time. But in his previous start, he threw 20 changeups, 17 of which were strikes. And on Wednesday afternoon against the Mets, he threw 21 changeups in all. Heading into the season, it was also noted that Arrieta had raised his arm angle back to the high three-quarters slot that he used during his peak with the Cubs. Last season, his arm appeared to drag behind his body at times, but, with the adjusted angle and better timing, he’s been able to get on top of the ball and throw it down more effectively. This has had a positive impact on both his changeup and his sinker, allowing him to pitch to contact more frequently, recording quick outs, often through double plays.

These are encouraging signs for Phillies fans. With the arrival of Harper and the other offseason additions, this (relatively) young team is expected to contend. And, if they’re to do that, they’ll need an experienced leader like Arrieta on the mound. He is, after all, the only starter in their rotation who’s over twenty six years of age. And he’s seen it all too, having helped carry that young Cubs roster to a World Series win in 2016 several years after almost quitting the game in the midst of a torrid spell with the team that drafted him, the Baltimore Orioles. Over the course of his first four years in the majors, he posted a dreadful 5.46 ERA, while between 2010-12, his ERA ranked fourth highest among all pitchers who threw at least 300 innings.

The promise he’d shown in the minors disappeared quickly, as Arrieta came to realise that he couldn’t simply rely on a 95-mile-per-hour fastball to get guys out. And getting traded in a package for Scott Feldman represented a true low. But the move to Chicago resulted in a spell in AAA, during which he worked on refining his secondary pitches and getting his confidence back. Commanding his fastball more effectively while throwing a slider-cutter hybrid, the direction of which was virtually indistinguishable, saw him become one of the best pitchers in the MLB.

At 33 years of age it’s probably safe to assume those days are behind him, but getting back to what made him so successful in Chicago has certainly had a positive impact in the early going.

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