Of all the headlines you want for your updated pitcher run estimator, one of the more undesirable would be “new metric claims Cy Young winner not very good.”
And yet, that is what DRA, even in its revised form, seems to be saying about Jake Arrieta so far in 2016. You know, the guy who beat out Clayton Kershaw for the Cy Young last year; the same Jake Arrieta who has already thrown a no-hitter this year and who currently sports a 0.84 ERA. Of all the stat lines to pick a fight with, DRA chooses this one. Fantastic.
So, let’s get it out of the way: Jake Arrieta’s current DRA is 3.85. As his DRA-minus indicates (98), this is basically average. By contrast, Arrieta’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is 2.78 and his xFIP is 3.03.
Initial take: something is wrong with DRA.
More informed take: DRA is noticing something very interesting about Arrieta’s 2016 season so far.
To begin, the “problem” is probably not with DRA. Even using this year’s updated formula, Arrieta’s cFIP last year was 71, which is terrific. This year it is 108, which is below average. Something is different.
And when you look at Arrieta’s peripherals, you start to see what cFIP and DRA are concerned about. Arrieta’s strikeout rate last year was 9.25 K/9; this year it is 7.75 K/9, which is a notable drop. Last year, Arrieta walked 1.9 batters per 9 innings; this year he is up to 2.5 batters per 9.
At the moment, out of all starters who have thrown at least 30 innings, Arrieta ranks 46th out of 82 in strikeout rate, which is below average. Arrieta ranks 47th out of 82 in walk rate, which is again below average. The one thing Arrieta ranks fairly well in is home run rate, where he climbs up to 13th, but DRA gives home runs very little weight this early in the year.
The issue here isn’t that Arrieta is secretly “bad,” just that he is succeeding in a way that does not work for most pitchers, at least not long-term. With a 58 percent groundball rate, and a good track record of minimizing exit velocity, Arrieta is pitching more to contact, and allowing hitters to get themselves out. (DRA considers outs on balls in play, but it’s tough to get much credit for those outs when you are playing in front of the league’s top defense). When a hitter does reach base, Arrieta is able to reach back for the strikeout and keep the runner from getting home — a fact underscored by his 96 percent strand rate. Very few pitchers can do this consistently, which is why “pitching to contact” has become a bit of a running joke. But if there’s anybody who can make it work, at least for a little while, at the moment that person is probably Jake Arrieta.
Although we would get more clicks for predicting that Arrieta is headed off a cliff, it’s much more likely that Arrieta’s peripherals and results will converge somewhere in the middle. More of Arrieta’s batters will probably start reaching base, and more of those who reach will probably start crossing home plate. Offsetting this somewhat, his strikeout rate will probably tick up closer to what PECOTA projects, which is over a strikeout per inning.
In the meantime, DRA reminds us that Arrieta’s 2016 is special not only for its results so far, but for the manner in which he seems to be accomplishing them.
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