Jacob Joseph Arrieta, or Jake Arrieta to most of you, is not a human being. Or maybe that’s Lil’ Wayne. I get them confused. Over his past 12 starts, spanning August and September, Arrieta is 11-0 with a 0.41 ERA and a no-hitter. He’s struck out 89 in 88.1 innings with only 14 walks.
Good luck with that, Pittsburgh.
The player who was once traded for Scott Feldman (forget the John Smoltz–Doyle Alexander trade) has not lost a start since July 25. Since then, Arrieta has lowered his ERA from 2.61 to 1.77. In that time span, he has allowed zero earned runs in nine of 13 starts. Arrieta has given up only one home run.
Arrieta has simply been unhittable for the Chicago Cubs as he prepares to take the ball for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has already beaten the Pirates three times this season, and has a 0.75 ERA against them in five starts. Arrieta turned in seven innings of one-hit ball in his most recent outing against the Pirates. Pittsburgh has slashed just .151/.192/.176 against the 29-year-old right-hander this year.
With those facts established, should the Pirates even bother showing up to take on Arrieta and the Cubs?
No matter how you slice it, Arrieta has been the best pitcher on the planet the past two months. He flashed signs of this potential in Baltimore before the Orioles gave up on him. Arrieta’s problem with the Orioles was that his pitches moved too much. This is a good problem to have in general, but Arrieta walked 4.0 per nine in going 20-25 with a 5.46 in four years with the Orioles. Too much movement and an inability to harness his raw stuff plagued Arrieta in Baltimore, but with a few tweaks, he’s become a nightmare for hitters (and Orioles fans).
Arrieta has become the type of pitcher who can spot his fastball with movement on both sides of the plate. He moves his fastball in multiple planes. Have fun trying to square that up at 95 mph. What Arrieta throws is called a sinker, but its movement is unlike any pitch thrown in the game today. Then there’s the cross-body delivery of Arrieta to further complicate things.
With most pitchers, the recipe for success is getting ahead in the count with early fastballs before going to the curveball or slider. That is the gameplan for a pitcher with a nasty hook like Arrieta. Opposing hitters would typically like to attack a pitcher who throws a lot of early strikes with an aggressive approach. That doesn’t work against someone like Arrieta because his fastball is that good. Swing early, and you’ll likely roll over a weak grounder, get jammed and loft a weak pop-up, or just flat-out swing and miss.
Arrieta has allowed just a .201 batting average on the year when opponents swing at the first pitch. When putting the first pitch into play, opponents are batting just .250 against Arrieta. Most players would prefer to see that average near .400 when they hit the first pitch. Of the 870 plate appearances against Arrieta this season, 494 have gone to two strikes. That’s nearly 60-percent of trips to the plate reaching two strikes. With two strikes, Arrieta has allowed a .121 batting average. Getting just one strike seems to be enough for Arrieta. After an 0-1 count this season (426 of 870 PA’s), opponents are batting .167.
Is there a single pitch hitters should look to attack when they face Arrieta? Not at all. Only Arrieta’s fourseam fastball, his pitch with the least movement, has been hit at a better than .200 clip this year.Unfortunately for the Pirates, and anyone else who may face Arrieta in the playoffs, he has mostly abandoned that pitch in the second half of the year. Arrieta has thrown only 38 fourseamers since August. Since turning almost exclusively to his sinker, opponents are batting just .104 against Arrieta’s fastballs.
There have been three home runs hit against Arrieta’s slider and curveball, but nearly all of the home runs against him came in the first half. He has given up only two home runs in 107.1 innings after the All-Star break, and only one on a breaking ball.
So, is there really anything the Pirates can do but hope for Jake Arrieta to make a mistake? It certainly seems that way. If the Pirates are aggressive early in the count, they will be swinging at a fastball that has been virtually unhittable. Wait around in the count, and they have the pleasure of swinging at a slider or curveball that has been hit at a .141 clip over the past two months. Swing early and often, and Arrieta’s pitch count stays low. Wait an at-bat out, and you’ll get to face pitches that generate whiffs at a greater than 20-percent clip.
The reward for a 98-win season in Pittsburgh? Just a chance to face baseball’s best pitcher in a do-or-die game. Arrieta has utterly dominated the Pirates and the National League this season. There do not appear to be any chinks in his armor, but baseball can be a crazy game. Of course the Pirates have a chance of advancing, but it will take more bad pitches than Jake Arrieta has thrown in two months. The only real way to envision the Pirates beating Arrieta is if he beats himself.