It’s amazing how one move can launch a team from being an afterthought in the eyes of the rest of the baseball world to suddenly being a dark-horse candidate for contention. With the Phillies officially signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million deal, that’s exactly what they’ve managed to do going into the 2018 season.
Though there was some concern that the Phils would end up giving too many years to the 32-year old former Cy Young winner, the contract wound up being good for the Phillies. Arrieta will still get paid plenty with a $25 million average annual value, but the Phils won’t be breaking the bank along the way given the payroll flexibility they will continue to have in the coming years.
I’ve argued before that the Phillies could give Arrieta a deal like this and still be set to give out a huge deal to Manny Machado or Bryce Harper in the 2018-19 offseason, or to Mike Trout after 2020. Thankfully, this move doesn’t dash the hopes that one of those guys could be the next big name to don the red pinstripes (provided at least one of them doesn’t sign an extension before hitting free agency).
Even in the face of a deal that benefits both sides, some may argue Arrieta’s declining numbers indicate that he won’t be able to give the Phillies the push they need to get back to contending in 2018. It’s obviously true that he’s trending down over the past two seasons, but there’s a lot more to these numbers than initially meets the eye.
Obstacles with repertoire
Despite struggling at times last year, Arrieta ultimately finished 2017 on a high note, posting a 2.28 ERA in 12 starts in the second half. Beyond the regular season, he did everything he could to get the Cubs into another World Series, only giving up one run over 10.2 innings in two playoff starts. He might not be able to fully replicate his miraculous 2015, Cy Young-winning season, but it’s clear that he’s still a much-needed upgrade to this Phillies starting rotation.
That said, it would also be unfair to expect Arrieta to also be a complete stud over the next few years, given that there has been some legitimate decline in his ability, though not so much that it wasn’t worth it for the Phillies to go after him like they did. A closer look at his numbers from last year shows that his average fastball velocity dipped from 94.3 mph in 2016 to 92.6 last year. To his credit, though, he did acknowledge that in his introductory press conference, realizing that he’s at a point in his career where he can’t completely rely on blowing hitters away and needs to focus more on switching things up with his pitches, which is certainly something he’ll need to do.
Beyond the velocity, however, some of the other potentially concerning changes from 2016 to 2017 include a decrease in ground ball percentage (52.6% to 45.1%), and increases in fly-ball percentage (27.9% to 34.4%) and home run rate (11.1% to 14%), thanks in part to a slider that got hit in the air 39% of the time last year. There’s reason to be concerned about a pitcher who gave up more fly balls than he had since 2012 now set to play his home games in the homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park. It’s good that Arrieta has acknowledged the need to be more versatile and crafty with his pitches than he’s been before, because if he continues to pitch the way he has in recent years, his Phillies tenure likely won’t end well for anyone. Last season showed that he still has a lot left to offer, but also that he needs to make some serious changes to his repertoire if he wants to have the level of success that the team needs from him.
The interesting thing about the repertoire is he’s increased the usage of his sinker while reducing slider usage from its 2014-15 peak. He also barely throws his four-seam fastball, a pitch he leaned on as much as the sinker early in his career. The sinker isn’t very effective at getting swings and misses (the curveball and changeup are best at that) but it is, for the most part, a pitch that generates ground balls. Hitters put up a .251 average against the sinker last year, and that was with a very good defensive infield behind him. The Phils should have an above-average infield in 2018, but it probably will fall short of that Cubs configuration. It’ll be interesting to see how much Arrieta uses that sinker in Philly, and what exactly he does with the fly-ball generating slider.
Nearly as important as Arrieta’s actual pitching skills will also be his ability to provide some real veteran leadership to a young pitching staff. In addition to having eight years of big league experience under his belt, he also knows what it’s like to be on the brink of an early retirement, as he had considered calling it quits after a dismal first few years in Baltimore.
That feeling of ultimately finding the drive to go on and get better in the face of adversity and doubt will hopefully prove to be invaluable advice that Arrieta can pass on to some of the young starters who also have yet to prove themselves. In particular, I’m holding out hope that he’ll be able to relate to and help Vince Velasquez, who’s at a critical point in his own career after not being able to live up to his initial promise as of late. While they might not be in the exact same situations, I remain hopeful that Arrieta can still inspire Velasquez to find a way to persevere and push forward to establish himself as a consistent starter.
It should also be interesting to see how Aaron Nola will respond to Arrieta, considering how much he’s matured during his time with the Phillies. Arrieta may not necessarily need to take Nola under his wing directly, but with just three years of major league experience, there should still be valuable insights that Nola can gain from Arrieta to help improve even more.
Looking past the direct influence that Arrieta may have on the young starters, this move should also do a lot to take some pressure off of them going forward. There may now be one less rotation spot open, but with a legitimately threatening pair of starters anchoring the rotation, there should ultimately be less pressure on the unproven starters to perform. Now, guys like Velasquez, the now-injured Jerad Eickhoff, Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta and the rest should be able to focus on their own game without feeling like they have to necessarily live up to Nola.
With the pieces that the Phillies have now in place, the most important thing for the team to do now is making sure that they can develop a strong sense of chemistry and a winning culture. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they suddenly have to get 90-plus wins and make a long playoff run this season (though I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that), but they need to show that they’re more serious about getting to that point now than they have been in previous years. On paper, this team can definitely do some real damage, so it’s all about fulfilling that potential in a way that the team hasn’t seen in years.
Arrieta is ultimately going to be a big part of how that culture going forward. Even with his opt-out clause, he wouldn’t have signed here at all if he didn’t believe that the Phils could be legitimate contenders soon. Assuming that the team can convince him to stick around after the first two years of his contract, he can ultimately do a lot to improve the team’s reputation to the point where Philly will become a much more attractive place to some of those aforementioned big-name players on the market.
Right now, the Phillies are the closest they’ve been to contention since their latest dynasty ended after 2011. The fact that they have a legitimate shot at competing for the NL Wild Card shows how far they’ve managed to come since this rebuilding process began. Arrieta may be one of several pieces that got them back to this spot, but he still looks to be just what the Phils needed to make that next push toward being a winning team again. Time will tell if this team can live up to its newfound promise, but whatever happens in 2018, it certainly feels good to know that this team is finally back in the spotlight.