Jake Arrieta gave up 6 earned runs last night, the most he's given up in a game since 2014. That's a lot of runs to give up in one game. Arrieta only gave up 6 earned runs total in a span of 15 regular season stats, stretching from the middle of August last year into May this year. Giving up runs isn't such a foreign concept to Jake Arrieta anymore, though. He's given up 15 in his last three starts. Despite his best efforts, his accustomed efficacy isn't there. This is his nadir -- hopefully. Frustrations certainly are at an all-time high.
This is happening at an inopportune time, as well. The Cubs are in a death spiral, losing 8 of their last 9, and 14 of their last 19. When we need our stopper the most, he can't seem to stop the bleeding. If anything, he's exacerbated it. Jake knows that. He's an intense competitor. There is no one hurting more than him. Getting out of this rut must seem like a Sisyphean task. If this all sounds too depressing, then I have good news for you: Last night wasn't so bad for Jake. He did get shelled, but he got shelled... differently. More importantly, he changed his approach in order to correct some issues he's been having.
In my last article, we discussed why he's having these problems. Most of it deals with him lacking fastball command. If you haven't read it yet, please check it out, because there is a lot in there that we are going to work off of in this article. In the article, we saw that his stuff is still there. His velocity is the same. The movement on his stuff is the same. He's getting hitters to swing and miss the same amount as last year. He just can't locate his sinker. The other problem is that he has been throwing more sinkers than ever. So he is leaning more than ever on a pitch that he can't command.
There was also a recent article at Fangraphs, discussing Arrieta's problems. This article honed in more on his slider. His slider is a devastating pitch. But, he hasn't seemed to have much confidence in it.
Arrieta's discussed changing his approach for a few weeks now, but nothing's really changed. He's mentioned that he needs to stop falling behind in counts. In his previous 7 starts, he only threw a first-pitch strike 52.0% of the time. Last night, he threw a first-pitch strike 60.7% of the time, which is right in line with the league average of 60.3%. Granted, this is an extremely small sample; two fewer first-pitch strikes and he's back hovering at 50%. But, we can go deeper to see where he might have made a change in his approach to start off an at bat.
We're going to concentrate on his approach against left-handed batters. He really hasn't had too many problems with walking right-handed batters this season. They've only walked in 5.7% of their plate appearances against Arrieta. Left-handed hitters, however, have walked in 13.7% of their plate appearances against Arrieta. On the first pitch of an at bat, Arrieta's thrown his sinker to left-handed hitters 76.0% of the time this year. He's said he needs to change his approach. If we look at his two outings immediately prior to last night, though, we'll see that he started off left-handed hitters with the sinker 77.0% of the time. Last night, he only started off left-handed hitters with the sinker 55% of the time. He also only used the sinker 65% of the time to start off an at bat against right-handed hitters. He clearly changed his approach here.
He, finally -- finally! -- quit relying on the sinker so much. He hasn't been able to command it, but he's actually increased his usage of it recently, for some reason. Last night, he went away from it far more often, though -- and not just to lead off at bats. (We're now going to bounce back and forth between Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball, because different sites will classify certain pitches a little differently.) According to Fangraphs, in total, Arrieta's thrown his sinker 44.4% of the time this year. Brooks Baseball has that number closer to 60%. The main difference is in what each site classifies as different types of fastballs.
Regardless, Arrieta didn't use the sinker as much last night. Fangraphs has him using it at 30.7% of the time, and Brooks Baseball has him at 51.1%. Instead of relying on the sinker, he ramped up his usage of his four-seam fastball, his curveball, and his slider. All three pitches saw their heaviest usage since sometime in May. Jake using his slider more often is the most encouraging news. His four-seam fastball and curveball have both been effective pitches, but they mostly are used to set up other pitches and keep hitters off balance. His slider is nasty, though. It is a dangerous tool. And he needs it to be the ace we've come to know.
That's all well and good, but he can't just completely abandon his sinker now. He needs to be able to command that pitch. He's always used it more than his other pitches. And it's probably been his second-most devastating pitch, after his slider. I showed in my last article that he likes to use his sinker a little differently than many other sinker ball pitchers. He's at his best when his sinker is up above the zone. It's such a tough pitch to hit that he doesn't need to bury it. He can attack hitters with it. And when it starts off in the zone, they are more apt to swing at. So he can start it off over the plate, up in a hitter's happy zone, and then have it not only dive down but also viciously jerk off the plate.
This year, though, he's not getting the sinker up and zone high enough. His average vertical pitch location is much lower with his sinker. We saw in the last article that he is putting the sinker below the zone much more often this year.
On the season, he's only thrown his sinker in the zone at just over 50% of the time. That number has regularly been at 55% since Arrieta arrived in Chicago. Last night he threw his sinker in the zone 55.6% of the time. And, also, he only missed low twice. That's what he needs to do with it. Keep it up and either throw it for a strike while challenging the batter, or at least keep it up and close to the plate so as to entice the batter to chase it as it breaks off the plate.
We discussed in my last article that hitters aren't swinging as often against Arrieta this year. This decrease has come entirely on pitches out of the zone. He's a pitcher that thrives on hitters swinging at his pitches out of the zone. But, everything's been so low this year that hitters have been able to lay off. Last night, hitters swung at his pitches outside of the zone 44.4% of the time, a season-high. As a result, he got swings on over 52% of his pitches in total, also a season-high. He also got a swinging strike on 13.6% of his pitches, well above his season norm.
He had a much more Arrieta-like control of the strike zone. He only walked one batter (though that walk proved costly). This was only the third time since April 16 that he walked fewer than two guys in a start. So he got beat with the long ball and other balls in play? Big deal. I don't think that's going to happen too often. Since the start of last season, he has the lowest HR/9 in the majors and also the lowest batting average against. I don't think teams are going to beat him with their bats. As we've seen, the stuff is still there. And he's still been just as tough to hit. This recent slide has been all about Jake and his inability to locate pitches and control the zone. He did those things last night. Despite the results, last night should be taken as a positive.