Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening – whichever is applicable to you. Fantasy owners can be a temperamental crowd; we smell roses when the production is good, yet “the sky is falling” when things are going bad. The 24/7 coverage and countless sources of information and opinions have only added fuel to this volatile fire.
Not all players are worthy of this passion. We expect ups and downs from the back-end of our rosters. Some will establish new baselines, while others will find themselves on the chopping block after a 3-20 stretch or 10 IP with 11 ER. The superstars, however, are held to higher standards. After all, they were our building blocks; the very foundation for the teams we built. The stats you projected for them were done so with confidence, so naturally any variation has had a big impact on your season totals. In life, some people are held to a higher standard, and fantasy is no different.
Not long ago Jake Arrieta was a non-factor in fantasy. His Orioles career featured no memorable moments or sustained success, and can best be summarized as being just another Baltimore pitching prospect that failed to materialize. Arrieta was dealt to Chicago in 2013; he made 9 starts for the Cubs that season. Of those 9 starts, 5 were of the Quality variety and his final line was 4 Wins with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. That production warranted back-end of roster consideration, a roll-of-the-dice kind of pick, for 2014 drafts. For those owners who took the chance, Arrieta produced excellent results posting 10 Wins with a 2.53 ERA, a .99 WHIP, and a nice jump in K’s to boot. 2014’s production changed the narrative on Arrieta: sure, heading into 2015 there were doubts, but those doubts were no longer about whether or not he should he be owned. In 2015 he was the best player in fantasy; naturally the bar had once again been raised.
Through 16 starts Jake Arrieta has 12 Wins, a 2.10 ERA, a WHIP of 1.02, and a career high 9.70 K/9. Those numbers have been good enough for a 7th place ranking among players using Yahoo Standard Scoring. Despite this production, after a disappointing 5 IP with a season high 5 walks in a Win at Cincinnati on Monday the narrative has become “What’s wrong with Jake Arrieta?” Your first reaction should be to scoff at the suggestion that those statistics are the product of any type of struggle. I define a struggle as looking at a James Shields box score every 5th day. But as I walked out of Great American Ballpark on Monday Night, I asked myself this very same question.
Nearly everything about Jake Arrieta is statistically the same as last season. Amazingly, some have even improved. As mentioned his 9.70 K/9 is a career high. His BAA of .177 would be a career low. His ground ball, strikeout, and LOB percentages are all near repeats of last season. Aside from a slight increase in FB% his batted ball data is once again a repeat of last season. As I stated earlier, nearly everything about Arrieta remains unchanged – the problem being one lone exception which has the potential to be problematic.
The problem for Arrieta thus far in 2016 has been the Walk. His BB% of 9.8 is over 4% greater than last season’s 5.5 mark. The 9.8% walk rate ranks 16th worst among ERA qualified pitchers. In the past two seasons combined, Arrieta had 2 games with 4 or more walks, but this season 6 of his 16 starts have resulted in such. While Arrieta has managed to succeed thus far despite these struggles, owners certainly are doing their part by questioning the 2016 outlook should this trend continue. More importantly, is there a reason to suggest that the control will improve moving forward?
Analytically speaking, the problem with Arrieta can be pinpointed to left-handed hitters. Last season LH hitters slashed .158/.221/.228 while RH hitters fared less miserably .206/.248/.309. While LH hitters walked more than RH hitters in 2015 the rate was only 2.22 BB/9. This season the splits are reversed: RH hitters are slashing .164/.223/.231, while LH hitters are slightly less miserable with a .195/.314/.278. Both BB/9 rates are up however as right handers have managed a 2.14 BB/9 this season while lefty hitters have more than doubled that output at 5.32 BB/9.
Given his struggles with LH hitters in terms of walks, one could wonder if a change in approach is the cause. This season Arrieta is throwing a FB/Sinker 63.8% of the time; last season that number was 50.7. Naturally with the increase in fastballs will be a decline in breaking pitches, notably his cutter. Last season Arrieta threw a Cutter 29.1% of the time, and this season that number is 20.2%. Curveball usage is also down for Arrieta, 11.9% in 2016 compared to 15.4% last season. While a change in repertoire could easily be referenced as a cause, when it comes to control I’m not quite sure. If this was a case of Arrieta being ineffective and being hit harder, then sign me up, but the data suggests this change shouldn’t be a source of the control problems.
This brings me to the most logical explanation. Think back to when you were 10. Big _______ (fill in the blank with applicable man-child 12 year-old) was on the mound in your Saturday Little League game. Perhaps you were the 9-hole hitter, maybe you weren’t, the point is the 9-hole hitter steps to the plate, the Head Coach calls time and proceeds to talk with the young hitter who’s clearly out of his comfort zone. At one point or another, plenty of grown men have given this sage advice to that hitter: “just don’t swing”. The hitter steps into the box, doesn’t move the bat off the shoulder, and upon occasion the end result is the batter standing on 1B after a walk.
Jake Arrieta could simply be that 12 year-old man-child. Hitters are swinging over 2% less often this season. On pitches out of the zone that number is nearly 3%. While a 3% decline may not seem like much, a 3% decline in pitches off the plate essentially changes the amount of walks you throw by over 2% over the course of a season. Combine this approach with a pitcher with as much movement as Arrieta, and it’s reasonable to expect an increase in BB%.
So the question is what should we make of this? Despite a clear change in approach by hitters the increased base runners haven’t led to increased runs. Arrieta still remains one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in all of baseball. Should everything stay the same in terms of walks, I still value Arrieta as a top 15-20 player moving forward. The walks will hurt his IP total which could adversely affect his Win output, but unless the opposition can actually hit him, his ERA and WHIP should both continue to be at elite levels. Even if the walk problems worsened, until hitters take advantage by driving the ball, the negative effects would still be minimal. If the control returns you would once again be looking at a top-tier full-fledged superstar.
As we all know, Superstar players should be treated differently. For a mere mortal this walk increase could warrant a full-fledged evacuation. In the case of this superstar the sky is certainly not falling at this point.
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