When looking at the starting pitchers available this winter via free agency, it’s not hard to see who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Sure, Shoehei Ohtani was a special circumstance, but when we’re looking at more traditional free agents, the two hurlers that stick out are Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.
There’s still plenty of time for the market to develop around these top-end options, but Scott Boras — Arrieta’s agent — is doing what he can to drum up as much interest as possible for his client.
While we don’t have a firm asking price for Arrieta’s services out there, we can safely assume Boras is aiming as high as possible — especially when considering what the right-hander did during his tenure with the Chicago Cubs.
Arrieta was an important piece to Chicago’s 2016 title run, but his four full seasons with the club (2014-17) produced impressive numbers. Over his last 751.1 innings of regular season work, he’s produced a sparkling 64-29 record with a 2.67 ERA, 25.3% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate, and a 51.1% ground-ball rate, all supported by a solid 3.42 SIERA.
With a pitcher that possesses this level of success over an extended period of time, why is this tactic from Boras necessary? It seems like it’s just what he does, but maybe Arrieta’s specific situation calls for it more than others.
A Downward Trend
While he used a strong second half to save his 2017 season and prop up his value, it was still the third consecutive year in which a number of Arrieta’s most visible statistics took a dive.
Sure, it’d be hard for anyone to keep up the 7.3 fWAR and 1.77 ERA he posted during his 2015 Cy Young campaign, but this probably isn’t a trend he was hoping for. The below table shows how his workload, ERA, SIERA, strikeout rate (K%), walk rate (BB%), and fWAR have changed since 2015.
Nearly everything we’ve highlighted here has progressively gotten worse with since his dominant 2015 performance. As we all know today, though, some of the traditional — and even advanced — stats we look at only tell part of the story.
Maybe he encountered some tough luck while still posting similar peripherals? Not exactly.
The Same With His Peripherals
If we look at other advanced statistics during this three-year period, we mostly get more of the same story with regard to Arrieta’s performance.
The below table highlights parts of his batted-ball profile, such as ground-ball rate (GB%), pull rate (Pull%), and hard-hit rate (Hard%), along with some plate-discipline numbers, like chase rate (O-Swing%), swing rate on strikes (Z-Swing%), contact rate (Contact%), and swinging-strike rate (SwStr%).
It also doesn’t help that Arrieta’s average fastball velocity has gone from a career-high 94.6 mph in 2015 to a career-low 92.1 mph this past season.
As we’ve seen with just about all of these numbers, they’re still mostly good — it’s not as if Arrieta has been terrible and Boras is overreaching more than we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s just that none of this is fun to look at as he looks for a lucrative multi-year deal while preparing for his age-32 campaign.
Too Many Innings?
One of the arguments Boras is making for his client revolves around Arrieta’s recent workload, specifically referencing Chicago’s deep postseason runs (quote via ESPN):
“When you have two years of postseason performances, what happens the third year?” Boras said. “You’re going to have a period where there’s a lull in performance because of what happened the two prior years. It’s the championship season hangover. It has nothing to do with the pitcher.”
This is certainly a valid argument, but it doesn’t seem right to only talk about the postseason. Between 2010 and 2014, Arrieta logged more than 150 big league innings just once in the regular season. It happened in 2014 when he tossed 156.2 frames.
He’s easily surpassed that number in each of the last three years, without accounting for the additional work he took on each October. One of Boras’ selling points is that his client has about 1,000 fewer innings pitched than Zack Greinke did when he signed his $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It’s attractive to go after a pitcher that doesn’t have a ton of mileage on their arm, but Arrieta has done a lot lately. Of his 1,161 career regular season innings, just over 69% of them (nice) have come since the middle of 2014, which is when he joined Chicago.
Should it be a cause for concern with teams? It might to some and it might not to others, but purely looking at career workload and not considering how it’s been spread out over time wouldn’t be totally fair.
At the end of the day, Arrieta will probably still get a hefty guarantee. That reported asking price of $200 million is way too much, but you’ve got to aim high before settling on a figure that actually works. There’s enough of a market for him — the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, and Washington Nationals have all shown varying levels of interest — that he’ll earn a contract that will seem like it’s too high.
There are potential warning signs here, but this is something we see to a certain degree every winter. When a player hits the open market, their agent searches for a deal to compensate their client based off past track record (and rightfully so). As for interested teams, they’re trying to find a middle ground between past performance and expected future production to settle on a specific number.
As things continue to ramp up at the Winter Meetings and the remainder of this offseason, it will be fascinating to watch which clubs are legitimately interested in the right-hander, and what the ultimate price will be for his services.