As Jake Arrieta plowed through opposing lineups during last season’s second half, memories of the pitcher with command issues were lodged deeper and deeper into storage.
After finishing ninth in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2014, Arrieta posted impressive first-half numbers last season, but he became the personification of dominance last summer and fall. The Chicago Cubs’ ace set an MLB record with his 0.75 ERA in 15 second-half starts, walking 1.93 per nine innings and striking out 9.48 per nine innings in that span. He catapulted himself past Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw to win the Cy Young Award.
“He was unbeatable the second half,” catcher Miguel Montero said.
But even though Arrieta, who will start Saturday against the Mets, has begun 2016 with a 12-2 record and 2.10 ERA, the command issues that persuaded the Orioles to trade him to the Cubs for Scott Feldman in 2013 have resurfaced somewhat.
Arrieta has walked 3.5 batters per nine innings. Before Friday’s games, that was the 18th-worst rate among 95 qualified starters, according to FanGraphs.com. That has contributed to a 2.77 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), suggesting Arrieta has been 0.67 runs per nine innings worse than his ERA would indicate.
“I don’t feel like there’s much to fix,” said Arrieta, who walked more than 4.30 per nine innings in two of his three seasons with Baltimore. “I just need to throw the ball over the plate.”
In 33 starts last year, Arrieta walked four or more batters once. He has eclipsed that total in six of his 16 starts in 2016.
“Just watching him, the command of the fastball’s been off,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows that. It’s just where it’s been. Stuff-wise, velocity, movement, curveball, slider, changeup, all outstanding. It’s just that the command of his overall stuff has been a little bit down.”
Maddon said health is not a concern.
In his most recent start, Arrieta allowed season highs of five walks and five earned runs in five innings against the Cincinnati Reds. The Cubs won, 11-8, but Arrieta expressed disappointment in his performance.
“When you walk five guys and four of them score, I gave the game away,” Arrieta said. “I didn’t get beat. I beat myself. If you’re serving it up and you’re getting hit, that’s one thing. But when you’re putting them on for free, that’s something completely different.”
The Cubs have lost only two of Arrieta’s six 2016 starts with at least four walks. Excluding his most recent start against the Reds, Arrieta has allowed four earned runs in 31 innings (1.16 ERA) in such outings. He walked four in his no-hitter against Cincinnati on April 21.
“You make 30-plus starts a year,” Arrieta said, “you’re going to be locked in for a lot of them, you’re going to be slightly off for some of them and then the other ones in between, it’s figuring out how to win those games where you don’t necessarily have your best stuff. You don’t need your best stuff to win games, and I feel like I’ve won games with some of my worse stuff.”
The Mets last faced Arrieta in Game 2 of the 2015 NLCS. They tagged him for four runs on the power of four hits and two walks. Of course, Daniel Murphy, whose two-run homer provided a 3-0 first-inning lead, is no longer with the team.
“Murph was hot and he just hit it out of the ballpark, but it was a good pitch,” Wilmer Flores said. “Sometimes you do what you’re supposed to do, but you don’t get the results that you want.”
And other times you do the opposite.