The Philadelphia Phillies made the bold move to sign free agent starting pitcher Jake Arrieta early in spring training. You could excuse some fans of the team, starved for a winner after five bottom-dweller seasons, who thought the club had signed a Cy Young Award contending ace to front the team’s rotation.
Arrieta has indeed won those honors as the top pitcher in the National League. But that was back in 2015 when he was a 29-year-old at the top of his game pitching for the NL Central Division champion Chicago Cubs.
The right-hander went 68-31 with the Cubbies over most of five seasons from 2013-17. In that NL Cy Young campaign, he also finished sixth in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player.
Arrieta finished in the top ten of Cy Young voting each year from 2014-16 and was both an NL All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner in 2016 when he helped lead the Cubs to their first World Series crown in more than a century.
But again, that was in the prime of his career. The Phillies signed Arrieta to a five-year deal back in March which guaranteed him $55 million for this year and next, his ages 32 and 33 seasons.
The pitcher can opt out of the deal after next season. The Phillies can void that opt out by exercising their own options on the remainder of the contract. If they choose to do so, the club would agree to pay him $20 million each year from ages 34-36.
As reported by Todd Zolecki at MLB.com, Phillies controlling general partner John Middleton had been quoted on the organization’s strategy in approaching free agent signings and trade additions as it builds back towards contending status.
“We’re always trying to improve the team, but we’ve got to do it a way that makes sense now and next year. We don’t want to sacrifice something significant in the future by making a short-term move. Whether it’s a trade or a signing, if we get the deal we think is right, we’ll do it. We’ll pull the trigger. Money is zero object. No object whatsoever.”
It’s a pretty good deal from the Phillies perspective. The organization has had a lot of luck with veteran pitchers during their early thirties in recent years. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt are the prime examples.
In signing Arrieta, the Phillies and their fans certainly could expect to get solid performances from the pitcher both this year and next. After that, the club can gauge his performance and health, the status of the rest of the team and pitching rotation and make their decision on the 2020-22 extension.
So far this year, Arrieta has been everything they could have hoped. Including last night’s relatively poor outing, he has made 19 starts for the club. Arrieta has a 7-6 record with a 3.23 ERA and 1.223 WHIP. He has allowed 93 hits over 103 innings with a 72/33 K:BB ratio.
Those are not Cy Young contender numbers. They are not “ace” numbers. However, they are certainly solid numbers for any big league starting pitcher. Based on the performances of youngsters Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin, you would have to slot Arrieta in as the Phillies current number three starter. His statistical results and experience combine to give the ball club a strong option in that role.
In eight of his outings, Arrieta has pitched into or beyond the seventh inning. He has gone at least six innings in 11 of the 19 starts. More than half (10) have resulted in Quality Starts of six or more innings pitched allowing three or fewer earned runs.
There are some areas of concern with Arrieta which were known at the time of his signing. Zolecki noted back then that his sources “indicated for weeks that the Phillies were unwilling to guarantee anything more than three seasons because analytics about Arrieta’s 2017 season raised concerns about a long-term contract.”
Arrieta carries a 4.06 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) mark, which follows on the 4.16 FIP mark that he registered a year ago.
For the casual fan, FanGraphs explains FIP as follows: “Essentially, FIP is an attempt to measure how well a pitcher actually performed independent of factors outside of his control that contribute to runs allowed based on statistics.” According to their evaluation system, this makes him roughly an average-level starting pitcher at this point.
Fred Zinkie in his “Fantasy Spin” at the time of the signing also noted the following:
“…Arrieta showed signs of decline while working with diminished velocity in 2017. Recording an elevated 29.4 percent hard-hit rate (23.8 percent from ’14-16), the right-hander saw his H/9 (8.0) and HR/9 (1.2) rates jump significantly (6.2 H/9, 0.5 HR/9 from ’14-16).”
Easier to see for pretty much any fan who follows the game regularly is that Arrieta has troubling implosions, such as last night against the visiting San Diego Padres. He yielded five runs, four of them earned, on six hits while walking three batters. Arrieta lasted just 3.1 innings over which he struggled through 82 pitches, just 48 for strikes.
That outing made it four straight calendar months during which the veteran righty has produced an outing where he didn’t make it out of the fourth inning.
Going back to last season, Arrieta failed to make it past the third inning in two of his final three starts with the Cubs in September. He was out after four innings during his lone start in the NLDS, then battled through 6.1 in winning his NLCS Game Four start over the Los Angeles Dodgers during which he threw 111 pitches and walked five batters.
The Phillies are paying Arrieta like an ace, a true number one starting pitcher. He is not at that level, and likely never will be again. The fact is, they had to pay him at such a level in order to lure him to sign with a Phillies team that had finished near the bottom of the overall MLB standings for the last half-decade.
Arrieta knows that he needs to do better. He was quoted by Zolecki following last night’s performance:
“Didn’t really have much tonight. The stuff that I was in the zone with was either too much elevated or the breaking stuff didn’t have the action that I needed. Start the game off with a walk and an error, not what you’re looking for. They picked me up, and that’s something that I intend to do when it’s my opportunity to do that for our guys, when we have that need.”
Fans should not expect to get number one starter production for which they may feel the team is paying. However, considering that the club is getting bargains from Nola and Eflin, who make just over one million dollars combined, they can certainly live with it.
What the Phillies and their fans really need from Arrieta is for him to eliminate those implosions over these final two and a half months of the 2018 season. We shouldn’t expect an ace, but we can certainly expect to see a veteran of his pedigree attain a greater level of consistency in performance.