Last night, as I drove home from Citizens Bank Park after enjoying the Phillies 4-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, it happened again.
Listening to a local sports talk radio station, the host was discussing the Phillies starting pitching rotation options. When he came to Jake Arrieta, once again the talk turned negative.
In fact, when considering a rotation that he would like to see in the postseason, those options included Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and some theoretical hoped-for outside addition, such as Madison Bumgarner.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the Phillies add a starting pitcher of the experience and skill level of a MadBum, a pending free agent who turns just 30-years-old on August 1.
However, to somehow believe that Eflin and Pivetta are better bets for October success than Arrieta is simply naive, and disregards the facts. First, neither Eflin nor Pivetta has ever pitched in the pressurized crucible of big-league postseason baseball. For that matter, neither has Nola.
You simply cannot discount that experience factor with Arrieta. The veteran right-hander has nine games of postseason experience under his belt, under some of the most clutch circumstances that a pitcher can face.
He tossed a shutout in the 2015 NL Wildcard Game at Pittsburgh. In Game Two of the 2016 World Series, Arrieta allowed just two hits over 5.2 innings as the Cubs evened up the Fall Classic at a game apiece. He then won Game 6, again tying up the World Series. The Cubs would win it in seven games, earning Arrieta a ring.
In all, Arrieta has pitched in one Wildcard Game, three NLDS games, three NLCS games, and has the two World Series starts on his résumé.
Okay, you might argue, he used to be good. Sure, he was the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner, has over 100 wins in Major League Baseball, and has all of that postseason experience. But that was yesterday’s news. Now, he stinks.
Well, if that is how you feel, then you are simply wrong. As President Josiah Bartlett famously said in “The West Wing”: “Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”
Sure, Arrieta has thrown some clunkers in the 2019 season. In five of his 13 starts, the 33-year-old right-hander has surrendered four runs or more. In fact, that has happened four times in his last six outings, and in five of his last eight.
But on the whole, Arrieta has provided the Phillies with eight Quality Starts this season. That is more than Eflin (7), Nola (5), or Pivetta (1) has given the ball club. For a team whose bullpen has been decimated by injuries, that is a statistic that cannot be ignored.
Yes, Arrieta was hit harder in May than in April, when his first five outings were all of that Quality Start variety. He allowed 35 hits across a half-dozen starts in April. That number upped to 40 hits over another half-dozen in May. But that is really just one more hit per game. The more troubling aspect is that his home runs total doubled from four in April to eight in May.
His first start in the month of June, which came in San Diego on Wednesday, was more of the same. Arrieta surrendered two more homers among seven hits while also walking five batters. It all amounted to an ugly five earned runs allowed which could have been even more over 97 pitches thrown across just 4.2 innings.
Recency factor is a very real thing, especially where the psyche of pro sports fans is concerned. That is especially so in a serious sports town such as Philly. Arrieta’s last start, and a number of his more recent outings, are what is fresh in everyone’s minds. So in some ways, the bad takes are understandable.
But let’s not forget that streak of five straight Quality Starts to open the season, which helped the Phillies to push into first place. And even during that downturn in April, he still supplied the team with four starts of six or more innings. Included among those was an eight-inning gem at Milwaukee.
Some fans simply won’t forgive Arrieta for what they believe to be a “big mouth”, feeling that he threw players under the bus with some earlier post-game comments to the media. That is just sensationalist nonsense blown up by those radio talk hosts.
The fact is that Arrieta, and J.T. Realmuto (who also did the same thing), spoke to their teammates directly before and in addition to broaching any public criticism. No one was “thrown under the bus”, they were called out in a very straightforward manner when an obvious situation arose.
One of the things that last year’s Phillies team was desperately missing was veteran leadership, someone willing to stand up and speak truth at key moments. It is not time to shut that down now that the Phillies have it with a more experienced locker room this year.
Few players are more willing to stand up and criticize themselves when they fail to produce than Arrieta, as exemplified per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia following his poor outing against the Dodgers a week ago:
“I’m just leaving them over too much of the plate, really. That’s it. I can get lefties out. You can’t miss middle-in with spin to power-hitting left-handed hitters. You just can’t do it. That’s what I did too many times tonight.”
The Phillies signed Arrieta to a contract last March as a free agent. His deal guarantees three years at $75 million total: $30 last year, $25 mill this year, and finally $20 for the 2020 season. There are further team options at $22.5 million for two additional years in his age 35 and 36 seasons, should the Phillies choose to continue with him.
In his first season with the team a year ago, Arrieta went 10-11 with a 3.96 ERA and 1.286 WHIP. He allowed 165 hits over 172.2 innings with a 138/57 K:BB ratio. That is the stuff of a number three or four starter, not an “Ace”, which is the level at which Arrieta is being paid.
While there are some Phillies fans who hold him to that type of standard, those fans are simply being unrealistic. Arrieta will likely never again by a Cy Young-caliber pitcher. He is never again going to be a number one starter, an “Ace”, for any extended period. The Phillies quite simply had to overpay in order to get him to come to an organization which, at the time, had been a consistent loser for a half-dozen years.
Arrieta needs to be better. That much is absolutely true. He would tell you the same thing. If he gets back to being more of the pitcher that he was during April, it will be a major boost to the Phillies pitching staff. And if he continues to struggle as he did in May, it will only make things tougher. But right now, there is no reason to be discussing some theoretical October pitching rotation that includes 25 and 26-year-olds with no playoff experience over a 33-year-old with a boat load of postseason successes.
My money is on Arrieta to figure it out, turn it back around, and to remain an important piece to the Phillies puzzle as they try to remain in contention through the summer. He gets another chance beginning with his next scheduled start on Tuesday night at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
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