Pitching is the #1 priority for the Milwaukee Brewers this winter. In years past, the Brewers may have simply been content signing a couple of buy-low candidates to fill out the rest of their rotation. But with the rebuild firmly in the rear view mirror after last season’s 86-win campaign, Milwaukee appears to be turning their eye toward the upper echelon of pitchers available. One hurler that they’ve already been linked to this offseason is Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta, who turns 32 next spring, was actually drafted by Milwaukee as a prep player once upon a time. He didn’t sign when the Brewers selected him in the 31st round of the 2004 draft, and a few years later he began his professional career after Baltimore made him their 5th-round choice in 2007. Within a few years Arrieta had become one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and in 2010 he debuted in the big leagues with the Orioles.
Arrieta pitched parts of the next four seasons for Baltimore, although he didn’t come anywhere close to matching the hype he garnered as a minor leaguer. He made 69 appearances (63 starts) and tossed 358.0 innings with an unsightly 5.46 ERA. He didn’t miss a ton of bats, issued far too many walks, and struggled to keep the ball in the yard. After posting a 7.23 ERA in 5 starts in 2013, the Orioles had finally seen enough.
The Orioles have acquired RHP Scott Feldman & CA Steve Clevenger from the Cubs in exchange for RHPs Jake Arrieta & Pedro Strop.— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) July 2, 2013
The now infamous move to Chicago changed the course of Arrieta’s career. The Cubs helped make some tweaks to his arsenal, namely throwing his sinker much more often than his four-seam fastball and greatly increasing his slider usage. Almost immediately upon his arrival in the Windy City, Arrieta began to pitch like an ace.
Over the last five seasons with the North Siders, Jake the Snake started 128 games and logged 803.0 innings with a sparkling 2.73 ERA. He finished in the top-10 of Cy Young Voting each season from 2014-2016, including capturing the award in 2015. That season, he compiled an incredible 1.77 ERA across 229.0 innings, leading the league with four complete games, three shutouts, and 22 winning decisions. He struck out 236 batters against only 48 walks, allowed only 10 home runs, and posted a ridiculous 0.865 WHIP. His DRA- was 48 that season, and he was valued at 8.2 WARP during the 2015 campaign.
Since that truly outstanding performance, though, Arrieta’s production has taken a bit of a step back. He put together a 3.10 ERA/72 DRA- in 197.1 innings in 2016 while helping the Cubs win the World Series, but saw his strikeouts tick down while his walk rate shot up quite a bit. In 2017 he managed to pitch only 168.1 innings thanks to a hamstring injury and posted a 3.53 ERA, though FIP- (96) and DRA- (90) felt he was closer to a league-average pitcher than his 81 ERA- suggests.
The first thing that jumps out about Arrieta’s 2017 season was the lack of sizzle on his fastball. After averaging around 94-95 MPH with his heater during his first four years in Chicago, his velocity dipped to 92.6 MPH last season. He lost a similar amount of velocity on the rest of his pitches (sinker, slider, changeup, curveball) as well. Batters made more contact against Arrieta (80.1%) than they were able to in prior years with Chicago, and his swinging strike rate of 8.7% was down nearly two points from the year before. He had not previously posted a swinging strike rate below double-digits with the Cubs.
With diminished stuff, Arrieta struck out 163 batters this past season while issuing 55 free passes. His 23.1% strikeout rate was the lowest he’s posted in a full season with Chicago and though his 7.8% walk rate was an improvement over his 2016 total, it was still quite a bit higher than his 2015-16 marks. Arrieta also saw an increase in home runs allowed, but that’s a little less notable given the effects that the juiced ball has had across the league. Even Arrieta’s 1.2 HR/9 in 2017 was still below league-average. One of Arrieta’s greatest strengths has been the ability to limit hard contact helping to keep his BABIP low (.268 for his career), but last year Jake allowed his highest rate of hard contact (29.4%) since all the way back in his rookie season of 2010. It is worth noting, though, that that rate of hard contact allowed was still a few points below the league average (31.8%).
Arrieta and his agent Scott Boras previously rejected extension overtures from the Cubs and when he declined the Qualifying Offer that Chicago extended him at the beginning of the offseason, Arrieta entered free agency. He, along with Yu Darvish, are considered to be the top two arms available on the open market this winter. While Arrieta may have once had a case for a six or even seven year deal, his downturn in performance in 2017 has prognosticators feeling more pessimistic about his market. MLB Trade Rumors believes he’ll be able to score a 4-year, $100 mil payday while Jon Heyman predicts he’ll land $125 mil over a 5-year term. Compare that to Darvish, who is projected by both parties to receive a 6-year commitment for between $140-$160 mil.
Whoever winds up buying Jake Arrieta this winter will be doing so with the belief that his 2017 season was more of a blip on the radar than the true beginning of a decline. Arrieta keeps himself in top physical condition and doesn’t have a history of arm issues, so there’s reason to hope that he’ll be able to hold up over a multiyear commitment. But the loss of velocity will no doubt be of concern to interested parties, especially as Arrieta continues to age. Even if Arrieta settles in as more of a mid-rotation arm going forward than the ace he’s been previously, he should be able to generate enough value to justify a ~$25 mil salary as long as he can stay healthy.
Given his age and performance profile, there’s a ton of risk involved in signing Jake Arrieta. Probably even more so than the typical free agent contract. The Milwaukee Brewers need to add quality innings to their rotation for the 2018 season and beyond, so it will be interesting to see how serious Slingin’ David Stearns is about paying a premium contract to Jake Arrieta.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference