As you may already know, Jake Arrieta has been really good. Like, ace-kinda-stuff good. On the day of the trade deadline, Arrieta just went out and threw 7 innings, gave up three hits and one run, and struck out seven. Kind of ho-hum for him these days.
I see a lot from Arrieta that I love, but some things worry me a little bit. If you follow the Cubs Insider writers on Twitter, you may have seen a conversation between myself and Tom Loxas (among others) about Arrieta. I tried my best to sum up those concerns about the pitcher, despite the 140-character limitation.
My assertion was that Arrieta reminds me of former Cub Rich Harden, and the response to that mostly ranged from “Huh?” to “HOW DARE YOU!” At ease, tweeps. I'm not saying Arrieta is a rogue, and I'm not saying I think he's gonna blow out his shoulder and we're all doomed. I am simply saying there are reasons to be cautious.
First, let's get out of the way that Arrieta started the season late because of "shoulder discomfort." He seems to have bounced back just fine, so this is not really the source of my concern. It's worth mentioning, however, that he's not clean of arm issues. "Shoulder discomfort" is a terrifying phrase to hear in relation to a pitcher.
Now for the comparison I used. Is it a little bit lazy? Yeah, probably. It's an easy comparison to make because Harden played for the Cubs. When he was here he pitched well, as his 3.31 ERA, 3.92 FIP, and 11 K/9 indicate. During that time, he frequently struggled to get past the 6th inning, mostly due to high pitch counts and general concern that he might fall apart.
Arrieta has had similar problems with making it late into games. Despite the fact that he's been more or less fantastic all season, he's pitched in the 7th inning in only seven of his sixteen starts. Despite an overall ERA of 2.18, his ERA in the 7th inning is 5.40.
Small sample sizes are tough, though, so I checked his career numbers. In 87 career starts, he's pitched in the 7th inning in only 32 of them. He's made an appearance in the 8th inning only 7 times. Arrieta also has problems with racking up pitches early and tiring late.
Take his Saturday start against the Cardinals, for instance. He finished the outing with 109 pitches over just 6 innings. In his near no-hitter in Boston, he was pulled after giving up his first hit on pitch number 120 (and still four outs to go). I think you get the point.
Arrieta has been better at keeping his pitch count down at times this season (we'll go into why in a minute), so he has improved on this issue. However, even as the guy pitching like one of the best in baseball right now, he still generally maxes out at 6 or 7 innings.
The other major issue at play is injuries. Outside of that "shoulder discomfort," Arrieta is relatively clean. However, my major concern here derives from his choice of pitches. Brace yourself for a ton of pitch information, specifically about Arrieta's cutter.
Arrieta began throwing a cutter last year, and has perfected it in 2014. Sometimes referred to as a slider because of the ridiculous late movement, his cutter looks like a fastball until the moment it gets up onto a hitter. Then it dives away from righties and in on lefties. It's a ridiculous pitch.
Why is this bad, you ask? Well, on the surface it's not. However, there is a growing segment of people in baseball that believe throwing a lot of cutters is bad for you. The Hardball Times cites a study that shows that there may be validity to a link between increasing cutter/slider usage and elbow injuries.
The same study also showed that bigger guys were less likely to develop elbow problems, so that may favor of the 6'4,” 225 lb Arrieta. But for good measure, let me show you some quotes from someone within the game that thinks the cutter is bad for you.
Orioles director of pitching development Rick Peterson has this to say about throwing a cutter:
"What happens is you start to get off to the side of the baseball (with your grip) and then you're no longer consistently behind the baseball. Typically what we see is the more you throw that cutter, you can become dependent on it and you start to overuse it and typically what happens to guys that overuse the cutter is their fastball velocity drops. That has been consistent over the years."
"I'm not saying the cutter is not a good pitch, don't misunderstand me. A cutter used effectively is a nice addition to your arsenal. But a cutter thrown 40 percent of the time for a young power pitcher can become a crutch, then your velocity drops and you fail to develop your changeup and a breaking ball that has depth to it. The cutter overused is normally not displacing changeups and curveballs, it's displacing fastballs."
His theory isn't proven, but it's not totally unfounded either. Current Dodger Dan Haren didn't really start throwing a cutter until 2009, and enjoyed two of his best seasons in 2009 and 2011. During that time, he threw his cutter between 25% and 45% of the time. But since 2011, his fastball velocity has dropped and his performance has suffered.
Here is what Haren thinks about throwing the cutter, from an article on Fangraphs:
“Even through the course of a game, if I throw too many cutters, I lose feel for my fastball...If I throw too many cutters, I lose the feel of turning my wrist and I lose a lot of movement and it’s flatter.”
Haren also added that throwing a cutter “absolutely” leads to velocity loss.
Travis Wood threw a cutter 16% of the time with the Reds, and averaged around 90 mph on his fastball. Since coming to the Cubs, he's thrown 30-34% cutters and has seen a steady decline in fastball velocity, sitting at 88.5 mph in 2014.
Arrieta was throwing basically no cutters with the Orioles (that makes sense) and was throwing his fastball around 60% of the time, mostly to set up his curveball (16%). In 2014 with the Cubs, he's throwing about 30% cutters and only 46% fastballs. And that percentage of cutters will likely rise. It's been a fantastic pitch for Arrieta so far, as batters strike out 37% of the time and sport a .379 OPS against it.
In short, it's been filthy. But will that continue, should his fastball velocity go down? Will his arm begin to tire, leaving his cutter a bit more flat than it is now? Other than examples with no definitive proof like Haren and Wood, we don't have a ton to prove Peterson's theories right or wrong.
I love watching Arrieta go out and make guys look silly on his dirty, diving cutters. What I worry that I'm going to see, though, is him overusing the pitch to the point that he puts too much stress on his elbow. Or maybe he suffers through another shoulder issue. Or maybe, like Travis Wood from 2013 to 2014, he comes out next year with a little less control and a little less velocity.
Rich Harden had ace stuff pretty much every time he went to the mound during his Cubs career. However, he couldn't be trusted to pitch deep into games or stay healthy, and could never reasonably be considered better than a number 3 starter. This may be where my comparison comes into greater focus.
Even if Arrieta never experiences injury issues related to his pitch selection (I hope he doesn't), the lack of ability to pitch deep into games remains a concern. When you make your list of baseball aces, guys like Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainright, and Clayton Kershaw are at the top of the list. All of these guys could drop a 9-inning beatdown on you on any given night.
So far, Arrieta has been unable to do that. For now, I think he is the “good number 2 or great number 3” that carries ace stuff to the mound with him every five days. If you're counting on him as your best pitcher, you aren't winning anything.
Again I'll mention that Harden was pretty damn good with the Cubs. Arrieta has been as well. If he can continue like this without injuries or effectiveness issues, no one should be complaining. Just don't think the Cubs should count on him being an ace, because long term he's probably not.
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