October 19, 2016
Arrieta's Slider, Cubs' Bats Go Missing
It wasn’t really a bad pitch that Jake Arrieta threw to Yasmani Grandal. He’d certainly thrown worse. When Arrieta cut loose a 3-2 sinker at 93 miles per hour in the bottom of the fourth inning on Tuesday night in Los Angeles, the Dodgers already led the Cubs 1-0, thanks to a hanging slider righteously thwacked for an RBI single by Corey Seager the inning before.
On the fateful full-count pitch, Arrieta appeared to essentially hit his spot, a hair below Grandal’s knees. Either Grandal knew it was coming, or he adjusted brilliantly. With a low, long stride and a vicious uppercut, he assaulted the pitch, launching it easily out of the park to the right of dead center field. The Dodgers would wind up winning 6-0, but the drive that made it 3-0 essentially punched out the Cubs in Game 3.
In the eternity spent on that homer—the sheer hang time of the majestic blast, the outburst of emotion from Grandal, the coursing jubilation of the fans and the players in the home dugout, and the difficulty Arrieta had in really collecting himself—there was ample time to reflect on the way that single plate appearance captured Arrieta’s season in microcosm. In 2015, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He got there in a strange sort of way, though. There were a lot of deep counts, but hardly any of them turned out to be fruitful. Batters seemed perpetually off balance, and so unable to hit Arrieta even when he seemed to be on the ropes.
Since every pitch of MLB games began being counted and considered in 1988, there have been 2,013 pitcher seasons of at least 750 batters faced. Of those 2,013 pitchers, only nine ever allowed a lower OPS in plate appearances that reached a three-ball count than Arrieta’s 2015 mark of .636. Arrieta struck out more batters than he walked in three-ball counts last season (50 to 48), joining a fraternity that, entering 2015, included: Greg Maddux in 1995, Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000, Curt Schilling in 2002, Roy Halladay in 2010 and 2011, and David Price in 2014. None of those pitchers faced nearly as many three-ball counts in the first place, though, and only Maddux allowed a lower OPS in those plate appearances.
It would seem, then, that Arrieta had some kind of genuine, nigh unprecedented advantage in three-ball counts, something that fueled his success. That was at least partially true. It should be noted that two other pitchers last year alone matched Arrieta’s feat of fanning more than he walked in those counts (Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner), and that 2013-15 represents the historic nadir of expected offense in three-ball counts, so far. Still, Arrieta was doing something real, something that was helping him get out of deep counts with strikeouts or weak contact.
Here is that thing:
Jake Arrieta Pitch Usage, Three-Ball Counts, 2015 Season
You can virtually ignore columns 1, 3, and 5 here, of course. The meat of the story is how often Arrieta threw his hard, cutter-like slider in 2015, especially when the count seemed to demand a fastball. He was able to get hitters to chase some sliders and freeze on some sinkers, and to make the weak contact that comes from a mistimed swing with great frequency.
Now check out Arrieta’s pitch mix in three-ball counts in 2016:
Jake Arrieta Pitch Usage, Three-Ball Counts, 2016 Season
You can guess exactly what the ramifications have looked like, if you really try. Opponents had a .961 OPS against Arrieta in three-ball counts this season. That 50/48 K/BB ratio from 2015 gave way to a 22/76 K/BB ratio in 2016. Arrieta’s slider usage has been down across all counts this season. So, for that matter, has been his curveball usage. He’s become very dependent on locating his sinker, and on the fairly frequent occasions when he hasn’t been perfect with that pitch, he’s struggled.
A 2-2 front-door sinker almost rang up Grandal in that pivotal at-bat Tuesday night, but Arrieta didn’t get the call. He threw a slider on the first 3-2 offering, but it had the zone (just above the knees, over the inner third of the plate) and Grandal fouled it off. If Arrieta had snapped off another slider, he probably would have fanned Grandal, who was obviously ready to go down and get a sinker.
At least, that’s what would have happened if he’d successfully thrown a good slider. One problem for Arrieta this year has been that the slider isn’t as good. It doesn’t come in quite as hard, bite quite as crisply, induce as many swings, or miss as many bats as it did in 2015. Maybe the pitch (and the curve that has similarly fallen into disuse) was taxing Arrieta’s elbow, and so he backed off. Maybe his consistent inability to command the pitch has discouraged him. Maybe there’s a confidence or other mental issue. Maybe it’s purely mechanical.
In this kind of case, it’s hard to tell the chicken from the egg, let alone determine which came first. It’s stunning, aside from this extreme swing in a particular subset of plate appearances (a change driven partially by simple regression and partially by the loss of a weapon in the arsenal), how similar Arrieta’s 2015 and 2016 seasons are. The uber ace is still in there, and not far from the surface. Arrieta simply doesn’t seem to have a clear notion of how to get that guy back.
The cruelest part? Arrieta has partially rediscovered that slider this month (or simply reintroduced, or determinedly decided to revive it despite its shortcomings). He threw 28 of them in his 83 offerings on Tuesday night. It still wasn’t missing bats (six whiffs in 17 swings, hardly up to his old standard), and wasn’t an ideal weapon against a Dodgers lineup loaded with left-handed hitters, but it was there, just as it had been during his NLDS start against the Giants (30 sliders in 97 total pitches). When Grandal fouled a tepid one off, though, Arrieta went back to his 2016 comfort zone, and Grandal made him pay dearly.
Rich Hill, meanwhile, had perfectly good feel for the breaking ball that made him the successor to Arrieta’s quickly fading storyline. He threw 51 curveballs in 93 total pitches, and the Cubs were befuddled. Hill also had great success on a handful of big pitches that saw him drop down and fire a cross-body fastball when he needed a strike to terminate a rally or a long at-bat. When you have just two great pitches, throw them as close to in equal measure as possible, and you’ll enjoy terrific results.
It’s how Arrieta defied all kinds of convention to have such success in three-ball counts last season, and it’s the oversimplified explanation for Hill’s late 2015 and 2016 success. (The longer version needs to include Hill’s arm angle, the way he uses his body, the spin he imparts on his fastball, and more, but the ability to leave a hitter caught halfway between the bat speed needed to hit his fastball and his curve is enough to sustain success, for however long both pitches stay sharp and he stays healthy.)
The Cubs’ offense will live to fight another day. Despite the dominant work of Clayton Kershaw and Hill over the past two games, Chicago boasts the best offense in MLB against left-handed pitchers, and while Julio Urias is an immensely gifted left-hander, he’s not quite at the level of Kershaw or Hill—not yet, anyway. This series is far from over. Both teams have exceptionally deep and dangerous lineups, especially when the matchups fall their way. Both teams have elite aggregate strikeout rates. The Dodgers showed better on both fronts Tuesday night.
Arrieta was a poor matchup for their lefty-laden lineup, just as he was for the (less potent) Giants in the NLDS. Joe Maddon refused to substantially alter his plan for Arrieta, though, so he gave up four runs in five-plus innings (instead of being lifted very early for one of the Cubs’ three multi-inning left-handed relief options). Maddon might make a different choice with John Lackey on Wednesday night, and get better results. Then again, Grandal (or Yasiel Puig, or Enrique Hernandez, or Andre Ethier) might hit another huge home run before Lackey can give way, and the Dodgers might take control of the series.
In whatever discussion we have had about Arrieta, we shouldn’t lose sight of the great job Grandal did to hit that home run. He got 27 balls over the fence this season for a reason. If this series does nothing more than give a national audience a prolonged opportunity to appreciate the ways (subtle and otherwise) that Grandal and Javier Baez can change games, it will have been a success.
The Cubs fielded more or less their best offensive unit, but Hill, Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, and Kenley Jansen are great pitchers, and the few mistakes they made, they survived. Most of Chicago’s offense seems to be mired in a funk right now, able to work at-bats to some extent, but not able to put their best swings on the ball, nor create consistent hard contact. Too many good swings led to foul balls, and there were too few good swings. There, too, we should note something: hard contact is not actually a specialty of the Cubs. The Dodgers’ hitters were fourth in MLB in average exit velocity this season. Fellow playoff teams topped the leaderboard: Washington, Baltimore, Toronto. The Red Sox were sixth. The Rangers were 12th. The Indians were 15th. The Cubs were 24th.
It might be hard to square that with the team’s reputation, and with its offensive output this year, but much of their team success at bat has come from controlling the strike zone—drawing walks, and putting the ball in play. It might be that, in time, we’ll find that teams or even players who rely more on consistent hard contact (and really, really hard contact, sometimes) do better in October. There are more pitchers who can miss the bats of even great grind-it-out hitters. The weather is cooler, so balls that might find the gap or the seats in July become fly ball outs in October. On average, opposing defenses are better.
Maybe the Cubs don’t have the offensive firepower to hit their way to the World Series, even though they had everything they needed to post the best TAv in MLB this season. Then again, maybe they’re just slumping at the wrong time, and running smack into (arguably, but with Kershaw and Hill healthy, the case is strong) the best pitching staff in baseball while doing so. (It’s probably the second one.) (And it could change at any time.) (Or not.)
Surely, the Cubs will take at least some solace in having gotten Jansen into the game for 21 pitches when the Dodgers didn’t clearly need him. Dave Roberts will have to wear that one if Jansen is needed in each of the next two games, and begins to look ragged. On the other hand, Roberts beat Maddon soundly during a sequence in the seventh inning. He used Joe Blanton for the seventh inning, rather than the eighth, because Baez, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell were due to bat. Maddon responded with some too-cute pinch-hitters, and then had to scramble his defense in the bottom of the seventh.
Roberts got all the matchups he wanted Tuesday night, on the mound and at the plate. He’s not yet fully atoned for his earlier managerial sins this month, but he’s getting there. If Dodgers pitchers keep executing this well, and if their sluggers keep finding ways to barrel up Cubs pitching (Grandal’s homer Tuesday night and Adrian Gonzalez’s game-winner Sunday night both came on pitcher’s pitches), the memory of those ugly intentional walks will eventually drown in champagne.