Has any pitcher ever been as unhittable as Jake Arrieta has been in the last year? Cliff Corcoran takes a look and finds one historically great contender for that crown.
If it seems like Jake Arrieta is in the midst of one of the most dominant pitching runs anyone can remember, it’s because he is. On Thursday night, the Cubs' ace and defending National League Cy Young award winner threw his second no-hitter in his last 11 starts, blanking the Reds in a 16–0 Chicago rout.
Arrieta’s second career no-no thrust him back into the headlines, but he accomplished something even more impressive two starts earlier—ironically his only one this season in which he has given up a run. On April 10, Arrieta made his second start of the year and allowed three runs in seven innings against the Diamondbacks. That marked the 22nd consecutive regular-season start in which he pitched six or more innings and allowed three or fewer runs, dating back to his shutout of the Twins on June 21 of last year. According to baseball-reference.com’s Play Index, that is the longest such streak by a major league starter since 1913, which is as far back as the game logs go. The previous record of 21 consecutive starts of that description was set by Greg Maddux from June 27, 1997 to April 15, 1998 and was tied by Johan Santana during his first AL Cy Young season in 2004. The only other pitcher since 1913 to make 20 such starts consecutively was the Astros' Mike Scott during his NL Cy Young season of '86. With his no-hitter, Arrieta is now up to 24 consecutive starts with at least six innings pitched and no more than three runs allowed. By comparison, the second-longest active streak of that nature right now belongs to Stephen Strasburg, at eight.
Those criteria of innings and runs allowed are actually slightly more stringent than those of a quality start, which require a pitcher allow three or fewer earned runs in six or more innings. With that looser criteria, there is just one pitcher since 1913 who has had a longer run of quality starts than Arrieta’s current streak, and you can probably guess who it was: Bob Gibson, with 26 in a row from Sept. 12, 1967 through July 30, 1968. Arrieta is now just two shy of tying that record.
Here are the longest quality start streaks since 1913:
Gibson and Arrieta pitched in two very different environments. The former had the benefit of a larger strike zone and a higher mound, and he was the most extreme example of the manner in which pitching dominated the game in the late 1960s. He also pitched before bullpen usage was redefined by the creation of the save statistic, when complete games and aces pitching into extra innings were still common occurrences (indeed, Gibson’s quality-start streak was broken when he allowed a fourth run in the ninth inning of a start in which he ultimately took an 11-inning complete game loss). Arrieta is pitching in an era of comparatively robust offense, but it's also one with extreme strikeout rates and in which pitchers are rarely asked to finish what they started, resulting in far fewer blown quality starts such as the one that ended Gibson’s streak.
Despite those differences, a comparison between the overall performances of the two pitchers during their quality start streaks yields some surprising results. Consider these unadjusted statistics:
Arrieta edges Gibson in ERA, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk rate and winning percentage. There are some obvious caveats to the above, not the least of which is the pointlessness of assigning wins and losses to pitchers. Arrieta’s advantage in strikeout-to-walk rate could be anticipated given today’s elevated strikeout levels, and while Gibson’s ERA and WHIP may be slightly worse, he also pitched deeper into games, averaging 8.8 innings per start to Arrieta’s 7.4. Then again, consider those figures against the context of their respective leagues. Because 20 of Arrieta’s 24 games came in 2015 and 22 of Gibson’s 26 came in 1968, I’ll use the National League averages for those seasons for this comparison.
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Beyond that league context, Gibson's home park, Busch Memorial Stadium, was a pitcher-friendly one in 1967 and ’68. Arrieta, meanwhile, is pitching his home games in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field. So while Gibson pitched deeper into games, got less help from his bullpen and threw more innings, Arrieta is pitching in a tougher overall environment and facing more productive lineups in more hitter-friendly ballparks. You could argue both ways as to which of these two starters has been more dominant during their streak of consecutive quality starts, but the mere fact that one could make an argument for today’s Jake Arrieta over 1968’s Bob Gibson is staggering.
I still give Gibson the edge. Part of that is because, in the midst of his 26-game quality start streak (and not counted as part of it), he delivered three dominant complete-game victories in the 1967 World Series, a total of 27 innings with just three runs allowed. Arrieta had two non-quality starts in last year’s postseason, though to be fair, he had thrown 238 innings prior to the first of those starts despite having never thrown more than 156 2/3 before in his career, and he did toss a shutout against the Pirates in last year's NL wild-card game, his first postseason start. Gibson, by comparison, was well shy of his customary innings total in late 1967 by virtue of having missed nearly two months of the season due to a broken leg suffered on July 15. Then again, did I mention that Gibson’s quality start streak started less than two months after a comebacker broke his right leg?
Nonetheless, there's another reason to be impressed by Arrieta’s start to this season: His workload increased by 60% from 2014 to '15. That he was pushed so far beyond his previous limit last year and has returned this year every bit as dominant is a testament to his conditioning as well as to just how good he has been. Stressful innings tax the arm, but Arrieta has had precious few of those over his last 24 starts, and if he can string together two more stress-free outings, he’ll put his name right alongside Gibson’s in the major league record book.