Jacob’s Ladder: Arrieta’s Atypical Ascent

Let’s look at two pitchers:

________           ERA       ERA+      FIP     K/9     BB/9     HR/9

Jake Arrieta      1.77         222         2.35     9.3       1.9         0.4

Pitcher X               5.23          80         4.75     6.9       4.0         1.2

Pitcher X is not Jake’s long lost brother, but is in fact Jake Arrieta – those are his cumulative stats from 2010-2013, his first four years in the majors. And that’s not a small sample size; Arrieta accumulated 409 innings in his first four years. The top line is from 2015, a season which has put Arrieta within shouting distance of a Cy Young award.

No other pitcher has had a surge like this after floundering so badly for his first four years, but even before 2015, Arrieta was traveling through a baseball landscape witnessed by very few humans. Just 26 pitchers in major-league history have amassed over 400 innings in their first four years and “achieved” an ERA+ of 80 or worse. The list is here. It’s most notable for its lack of notability — an array of names of you haven’t heard of, interspersed with a few modern guys who, for the most part, failed to make an impact.

The other notable thing about the list is how short it is; most teams will have given up on a pitcher this consistently bad long before he’s eaten 400 innings of paychecks. Beside Arrieta, just two of the 26 had successful major-league careers as starters: Bullet Joe Bush and Camilo Pascual. None of them ever came close to Arrieta’s 222 ERA + in 2015; in this respect, Arrieta walks (or rather suppresses walks) alone.

Arrieta came up in 2010 to participate in two 90-loss Orioles seasons, but the Birds were taking flight, and in 2012 they would win 93, before slipping to 85 wins in 2013. These were good teams, patched together with Dan Duquette’s yard-sale bargains and Buck Showalter’s newly humanized intensity.

Arrieta had a quiet breakthrough in 2012, his third year with the Orioles, when his K/9 spiked at 8.7, while his BB/9 plunged from over 4 down to 2.7. These front-line starter numbers were buried by his 6.20 ERA, which in turn stemmed in part from a high homer rate (1.3/9). The Orioles understood that beneath the ERA there was progress, and did not trade him.

In 2013, Arrieta gave most of his gains back. The strikeouts remained, but he began walking the house. Even FIP began to have doubts, and on June 17 they shipped him to the Cubs (along with Pedro Strop, now a competent set-up man) in exchange for backup catcher Steve Clevenger and 90 mediocre innings from Scott Feldman. It looks like a disastrous trade now, but at the time it seemed suicidal for a contender to hand Arrieta the ball every fifth day.

Perhaps the Orioles’ inflexible approach to pitching mechanics impeded Arrieta’s development. Perhaps he developed a new pitch, or refined an old one. Maybe he needed a change of scenery. Whatever the case, Arrieta didn’t become Jake Arrieta with the Cubs right away. He brought the walks and homers with him in his carry-on luggage when he touched down in Chicago in late June. His strikeout rate actually dropped. But perhaps most importantly, his WHIP plunged, from over 1.7 with the Orioles in 2013 to just over 1.1 with the Cubs. Both rates were BABIP driven: in Baltimore, .343, in Chicago, an equally unsustainable .190. But Arrieta took advantage of his luck, using the emotional breathing space the sudden drop in traffic provided to focus on developing his devastating sinkerslidercutterwhatever. In this case the change of scenery provided an immediate and positive, if accidental, dividend. Arrieta’s BABIP has since returned to a normal neighborhood: .274 in 2014 and .246 in 2015. (His success this year was only partially BABIP-fueled, a fact that should the scare the pine tar off the bats of NL Central hitters.)

Although no one on the List of 26 is really a comp for Arrieta, Pascual probably comes closest, thanks to his dominating stuff. Featuring a knee-buckling curve, Pascual achieved strikeout rates that wouldn’t look at all out of place in today’s game. From 1958-1964, Pascual K/9 never fell below 7; this in an era when league strikeout rates were typically in the 5s. Wildness and gopheritis plagued Pascual in his early years, but he became a rotation mainstay for the Senators in ’58, and stuck with the franchise until 1966, a year after the now-Twins went to the Series.

Pascual had a quiet breakthrough in 1956, his third year with the Senators. His strikeout rate spiked at 7.7/9, while the walk rate dropped to a (still high) 4.2. Victimized by a ghastly 33 homers, his ERA was awful, but there were signs of promise. In 1957 it all went backwards. His ERA peaked at an eye-watering 6.11 on May 4, and after ebbing somewhat, reached another appalling summit at 5.49 on June 22, about the same time in the season that Arrieta’s career ended in Baltimore.

But the Senators did not blink. It was around this time, in the sweltering 1957 summer, that Camilo Pascual became Camilo Pascual. The strikeouts came back, the homers did not. He finished with a respectable 4.10 ERA, a figure he would easily beat for the next 8 years.

Pascual was only 23 during his Crossroads Year; Arrieta was 27, a much easier age for a team to give up on a player. Arrieta has Scott Boras as his agent; Pascual had the reserve clause as his ankle bracelet. Perhaps most importantly, the 1957 Senators were simply abominable. They would lose 99 games (out of 154!) in 1957, and indeed would exceed 90 losses during every season from 1955-1959.

In 2013, the Orioles couldn’t risk nine more Jake Arrieta starts if they hoped to contend; In 1957, the Senators wouldn’t contend until 1962, by which time they had moved to a different time zone. The 2013 Orioles’ team success produced a roster assembly failure, while the 1957 Senators’ team failure produced a roster assembly success.

Pascual was very good for several years. Arrieta has been outstanding for two. His FIP has been very consistent in his two full years with the Cubs: 2.26 in 2014, and actually slightly higher (2.35) in 2015.  Arrieta’s remarkable climb has reached the top rung; it remains to be seen how long he can stay there.

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