The Arrieta Enigma

On Saturday, we began our spring training round-up with a list of questions, the answers to which will help determine the Chicago Cubs’ 2014 fate.  Today, we look at one of those questions.  Will Jake Arrieta be healthy and consistently throw enough strikes to become a serviceable back-half-of-the-rotation starting pitcher?

As it turns out, the first significant news to come out of Mesa, Arizona, involved Arrieta.  Friday, the Cubs announced that Arrieta suffered from a shoulder strain that likely would force him to miss the start of the season. One day later, Arrieta himself declared, “I don’t think Opening Day is a far stretch.”  Perhaps Arrieta’s outlook is overly optimistic or maybe the Cubs were too guarded in their initial pronouncement.  Either way, the Arrieta setback further clouds the Cubs’ starting rotation picture for 2014.

Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles as an over-slot player in the fifth round of the 2007 baseball amateur draft, the soon to be 28-year old Arrieta quickly rose through the Orioles’ farm system.  In December 2008, MLB.com ranked Arrieta as the 36th best prospect in all of baseball (the top three prospects that season were David Price, Matt Wieters, and Jason Heyward).  At the time, scouts raved about Arrieta’s plus fastball and speculated that if he could improve his secondary pitches, Arrieta could become a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher at the big-league level.

Arrieta has yet to reach the potential that scouts had projected five years ago.  Once mentioned as a possible number one starter, Arrieta now projects as a back-of-the-rotation pitcher.  Arrieta has spent parts of the last four years in the major leagues, where he has started 72 of the 78 games in which he has appeared.  During this time, Arrieta has underperformed in relationship to his “stuff” due in large part to poor control.  Arrieta still sports a good fastball with an average velocity of 93.9 miles per hour, but his secondary pitches never developed as hoped.  While Arrieta’s curveball demonstrates good movement, his inability to consistently throw it for strikes has led him to struggle at times.  In 2013, Arrieta relied on his fastball 65% of the time while 16% of his pitches were curve balls, 9% sliders, and 6% change-ups.  In comparison, Cub starter Jeff Samardzija threw an average fastball at 94.5 miles per hour, but only used the pitch 53% of the time. (via the The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.)  If Arrieta could harness his control over his secondary pitches, his fastball would become more effective and his 12% swinging strike rate (which places him at the very low end of average for a pitcher) would inevitably increase.

When the Cubs acquired Arrieta and Pedro Strop from the Baltimore Orioles last July in exchange for Scott Feldman, many hoped that Arrieta would refine his command of the strike zone en route to becoming a viable starting pitcher.  Unfortunately, Arrieta continued to exhibit poor control after his trade to the Cubs.  On a more positive note, Arrieta significantly reduced the number of hits he surrendered which off-set his high walk rate and resulted in a career low 3.66 earned run average.  Whether it be moving out of the American League East, not facing designated hitters, or an improvement in his confidence, Arrieta’s decreased hit rate provides a reason for optimism.  The Cubs hope that Arrieta can maintain last season’s hit rate while slightly reducing his walk rate.  If so, Arrieta would be poised to lock down the fourth spot in the team’s starting rotation.  Of course, first Arrieta must overcome his recent health setback.  Hopefully, a quick return to the mound, in conjunction with a decreased hit rate, will serve Arrieta and the Cubs well in 2014.

Photo: Baltimore Orioles Jake Arrieta / Keith Allison / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: cropped