The Red Sox recent extension of Rick Porcello contains an important message for the Cubs--extend Jake Arrieta. While it may seem that an extension with Arrieta is impossible due to Scott Boras being his agent, there are factors at play that make it realistic. While he generally opposes extensions because they prevent his clients from reaching free agency and the ensuing bidding wars that occur, Arrieta is in an unusual situation.
Due to the rules of the CBA, and Arrieta not reaching the majors until his age 24 season, he won't be a free agent until he’s 32. Hitting the market at such an advanced age would undoubtedly limit the number of years for his contract, and consequently its total value. While fellow teammate Jon Lester was able to secure a 6-year deal heading into his age 31 season, his track record is much better than that of Arrieta’s. Because of these factors, Boras (despite some animosity towards the Cubs front office over the Kris Bryant situation) may be surprisingly responsive towards taking an extension now, rather than risk Arrieta never cashing in.
It seems that the stars may be in alignment for Arrieta to be locked in as a Cub for less than what his fair market price would be. Before the Cubs take that chance however, they must be sure that the Arrieta they saw in 2014 is here to stay. As a member of the Baltimore Orioles, Arrieta was very underwhelming. He never threw more than 119.1 innings while with the birds, and his best season, according to his peripherals, was in 2012 in which he posted a 4.05 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, and a 3.66 SIERA.
However as 2013 unfolded, he couldn’t repeat what was his best performance to date (which was average at best), and was traded to the Chicago Cubs, along with Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. The trade was transformative for Arreita. Changes in his pitch selection, supported by mechanical adjustments, turned an Oriole pitcher struggling to find his identity into a Cy Young contender.
The critical difference in terms of pitch selection between the Baltimore Orioles version of Jake Arrieta and the version that is now with the Chicago Cubs is the cutter (although Arrieta himself has referred to it as both a slider and a cutter). In Baltimore, Arrieta did not throw that pitch, but once Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio got his hands on him, that changed drastically.
Arrieta went from throwing no cutters while with the Orioles, to throwing it 28.3% of the time, second-most of all of his pitches. The addition of the cutter forced other changes. Bosio had him gut the usage of his old slider to the point of eliminating it altogether. Arrieta reduced his fastball usage by 27.03% from 2013 to 2014 and cut back on his change-up usage by 30.86%. Only his curveball usage remained relatively unchanged. His former friend, the slider, is almost non-existent now, and has been replaced with a brand new toy.
Simply adding a pitch while simultaneously removing others isn’t enough by itself. Any major league pitcher can adopt a new pitch; what matters most is that it’s effective. Fortunately for Arrieta, the cutter he picked up was not only effective, but in fact would have ranked 2nd in major league baseball had he thrown enough innings to qualify, a figure that he missed by just under six full innings.
Overall, Arrieta was unarguably fantastic in 2014. He pitched to the tune of 30.4 runs above average, with only one category in the red, which was a pitch he only threw 0.8% of the time. The total effect on a change in pitch selection is a complicated affair, and with the introduction of his cutter, Arrieta’s fastball showed remarkable improvements. Armed with a new pitch that was almost identical in velocity (vFA of 93.4 & a vFC of 93.5), Arrieta had planted a cutter in the back of hitters minds; a pitch which is notoriously difficult to pick up due to it’s late movement. Because of this, hitters could no longer sit on his fastball, and was likely a factor in his fastball increasing in value by 10.5 runs in a season’s time.
Radical changes to his mechanics complimented Arreita’s change in pitch selection, and completed his Chicago makeover. There’s a stark contrast in release points between his time with Baltimore and in Chicago. Once again, this is likely due to Bosio’s handiwork.
From the moment Arrieta became a Chicago Cub, he raised his vertical release point and moved over to the right side of the pitching rubber. While the graphs tell the numerical stories, it’s striking to see the adjustments on video, which are shown below.
In approaching the decision of whether or not to offer Arrieta a contract extension now, there is a singular question before the Cubs front office: Is Arrieta’s 2014 performance sustainable? In answering questions like these, front offices can make or break the immediate future of their franchise. The evidence points convincingly to Arrieta’s 2014 being a marker for future success and not an aberration. He didn’t magically start throwing 98 mph, or turn into Clayton Kershaw 2.0. The Baseball Gods didn’t bless him with an abnormally low BABIP, or an unsustainably high LOB%, or anything that would suggest the regression monster is after his head. But rather, Arreita’s transformation happened because of strictly controllable factors; finding a suitable pitch selection and mechanics that compliment each other and work for him. These are repeatable and sustainable characteristics that should scream to the Cubs to extend Arrieta.
The Cubs window of serious contention appears to be here in full (or at least on the event horizon until Kris Bryant is summoned from Iowa). It is not expected to be a narrow window, as the Cubs are stacked with a farm system built to last. General management would be wise to lockup Arrieta for the long haul. Including this season, Arrieta is set to become a free agent three seasons from now, in the midst of the Cubs’ window of contention.
Just a few days ago, before ever throwing a pitch with the Red Sox, Rick Porcello signed an extension for 4-years and 82.5 million dollars; and before that, news broke that the Cleveland Indians extended the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, Corey Kluber for 5 years and $38.5 million. Included in the deal are two option years that if exercised in full can kick the value of the contract up to $71.8 million. It may seem odd initially that Porcello received a contract that guarantees him more money than Kluber, but with Porcello set to hit free agency at the end of this season, he had more leverage than Kluber.
While Arrieta is not a Cy Young winner, there are some similarities between him and Kluber. Each had his breakout campaign in his age 28 season after having little success beforehand. Each has a fantastic walk rate, is adept at keeping the ball in the park, and has above average and nearly identical GB percentages. As the 2015 season progresses, if Arrieta can show that his 2014 was not a fluke (as the evidence says it was not), then Cubs management should extend him sooner, rather than later. This is a unique time when "risk aversion" is working to push both sides toward a deal that would be good for everyone.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.