- Jake Arrieta is a former Cy Young winner and staff ace. Is it a good idea for a team to sign him to a long-term deal?
Jake Arrieta stands not only as one of the key pieces in the Cubs' rebuilding effort and subsequent championship, he's a great recent examples of how a change of scenery can turn a player's career around. After effective, but rocky years in 2016 and ’17, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner may be considered a cautionary tale for electing a year-to-year contract strategy instead of inking a long-term deal. While there's a dearth of frontline pitching available via free agency—nobody's using the word "ace" to describe Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn, the top starters on the market aside from Arrieta and Yu Darvish—Arrieta's 2016–17 regression raises the question of whether he still fits that description. All of which makes him a great subject to address as the latest installment of my What's He Really Worth series.
A fifth-round 2007 pick out of Texas Christian University by Baltimore, Arrieta came though the Orioles' system as part of a quartet of well-regarded pitching prospects alongside Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton. He never ranked as high as the other three on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects lists, placing 67th in '09 and 99th in 2010, with his stock dipping due to the slow development of his command and secondary arsenal. He made his major league debut on June 10, 2010 and spent the next three years getting lit up by major league hitters (5.46 ERA, 4.72 FIP), struggling with his command and control as well as keeping the ball in the park. Pitching through a bone spur in 2010-11—resulting in season-ending surgery in the latter year — didn't help matters.
On July 2, 2013, Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop were traded to the Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. Thanks to improved command and a revamped arsenal—with increased reliance upon his sinker instead of his four-seam fastball, and more effective slider and changeup—he evolved into a much better pitcher. His groundball rate soared, his walk and home run rates dropped, and his run prevention improved. In eight starts in late 2013 plus 25 in ’14 (he missed all of April due to shoulder inflammation), he pitched to a 2.81 ERA and 2.92 FIP with 8.8 strikeouts per nine. Suddenly, the rebuilding Cubs had a cornerstone for their rotation.
Still, none of that suggested Arrieta was about to unleash one of the most dominant stretches in recent memory. Over his final 20 regular season starts in 2015 (June 20 onward), he pitched to an 0.86 ERA while holding batters to a .150/.200/.210 line. He no-hit the Dodgers on August 30, allowed just two homers in that 147-inning span, and all 20 of those starts were quality starts; carrying over to 2016, he ran the streak to 24, two short of Bob Gibson's post-1913 record, and capped the run with his second no-hitter, on April 21 against the Reds. In the 2015 postseason, he threw a five-hit shutout against the Pirates in the NL Wild Card game but was knocked around in his next two starts. Via his 22–6 record, 1.77 ERA and 236 strikeouts, he edged Zack Greinke (whose 1.66 ERA bested his) in the NL Cy Young voting.
Arrieta couldn't maintain that kind of dominance throughout 2016, but he still made the NL All-Star team, finished with a 3.10 ERA and 3.52 FIP, and posted a 3.63 ERA in four postseason starts, the last two of them World Series victories over the Indians. But those extra October innings—42 in 2015–16, on top of 426 1/3 in the regular season—may have caught up to him in 2017. Via Brooks Baseball, his average sinker velocity fell from 95.2 mph in 2015 to 94.4 in '16 to 92.5 in '17, with his four-seamer dipping from 94.9 to 92.7 in that span, and his secondary pitches each shedding a couple of clicks as well. His ERA rose to 3.53, his FIP to 4.16, due in large part to a home run rate that roughly tripled over that three-season span (from 0.4 per nine to 1.2). He did go on an 11-start run in July and August (1.69 ERA, 3.49 FIP) before a hamstring injury limited him to 10 1/3 wobbly innings in September, but he allowed just two runs (one earned) in 10 2/3 October innings, capped by a strong start that gave the Cubs their only victory over the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Even with that late rebound, Arrieta is riding ominous trends into free agency after he rebuffed extensions in 2016 and '17. Given that he's a Scott Boras client, his path to market was no surprise, nor was the use of Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million deal as a point of comparison, at least as of last March. Spoiler alert: like Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, Arrieta isn't going to get $200 million, and probably not even the $160 million (over six years) that CBS Chicago's Bruce Levine reported as the starting point for negotiations in November.
It's not a perfect analogue, because the going-on-32-year-old righty will still be handsomely paid, but where Scherzer steered clear of an extension with the Tigers after winning the 2013 AL Cy Young, his follow-up was nearly as strong; the bet he made on himself paid off with a record-setting deal. While the desire to test free agency is understandable, Arrieta's fall from peak form will cost him. USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported last week that the Cubs "would be willing to bring back Arrieta on a four-year deal for about $110 million, but sorry, they refuse to dish out a six-year deal." Last week, Levine reported that the Cardinals were the other team besides the Cubs who had shown the most interest.
At $27.5 million per year, Arrieta’s proposed contract would rank fifth in average annual value for a pitcher, though all of the deals ahead of him—those of Greinke, David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Scherzer—surpass the $30 million annual mark and $200 million in total value. Even those parameters look better than Arrieta’s expected valuation via the WHRW model, which uses Tom Tango’s WARcel forecasting system, a WAR-based version of his Marcel the Monkey forecaster system ("the most basic forecasting system you can have, that uses as little intelligence as possible") which builds in regression and an aging curve as well. My WHRW model also uses research-based estimates of the cost of a win via free agency and the rate of salary inflation.
Via the 6/3/1 WAR weighting (six times the player's 2017 WAR plus three times his 2016 WAR plus his 2015 WAR, divided by 10) Arrieta's baseline projection for 2018 looks pretty grim, as he's fallen from 8.7 WAR (2015) to 3.4 ('16) to 1.9 in that span via Baseball-Reference's version of the metric and from 7.3 to 3.8 to 2.4 via FanGraphs' version. (I generally eschew the latter when it comes to analyzing pitching, as the formula is driven by the same strikeout, walk and homer rates that go into FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) without regard for a pitcher's sequencing or influence on quality of contact). Given Arrieta’s potential change of scenery, and thus the defenses behind him, the FanGraphs formula is of more use here, as is the slightly sunnier baseline forecast for 2018 (3.3 WAR instead of 3.0).
(NOTE: Numbers in the following four paragraphs and table have been updated to reflect the correction of my error in applying the WARcel formula.)
Unfortunately for our spreadsheet version of Arrieta, that’s before applying any kind of regression (20% in the first year, or 0.8 times that weighted WAR) or aging curve; pitchers in the WARcel model lose 0.4 WAR per year every year after age 26, albeit without the age-based acceleration in the position player model. Even using the more favorable FanGraphs flavor, the forecast is uninspiring, with annual WARs of 2.6, 2.2, 1.8 and 1.4 for a net total of 8.2 WAR across the next four years. Starting with the low-end estimate of $9 million per 2017 win, applying a 5.9% rate of inflation, that’s a yield of $84.1 million of value over four years, while using a high-end estimate of $10.5 million (with the same rate of inflation) yields $98.1 million of value.
So let's do this a bit differently, by working backwards to reach the proposed dollar figure and then extrapolating to the assumptions that must be driving it. Using the low-end estimate of $9 million per 2017 win, this gets us right around that dollar figure:
The low-end estimate assumes Arrieta will rebound in 2018 to pitch at a level much closer to his '16 form than his '15 or '17 one. In 2017, one pitcher finished with a bWAR of 3.3, namely Jimmy Nelson (3.49 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 175 1/3 IP). Two pitchers had an fWAR of 3.3: Carlos Martinez (3.64 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 205 IP) and Gio Gonzalez (2.96 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 201 IP). Those aren't perfect analogues for Arrieta’s style; all had higher groundball rates than Arrieta’s 45.1% (Gonzalez just barely) and both Nelson and Martinez whiffed at least 9.5 per nine, while Arrieta maintained his previous season's strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine. The larger point is that Arrieta would have to be more durable and effective than he proved in 2017.
Using the higher-end estimate of $10.5 million per win requires a starting point of 2.9 WAR (and a total of 9.2 WAR) to yield $110 million in value. Via bWAR, six starting pitchers finished right at 2.9, ranging in innings from Madison Bumgarner’s 111 to Martinez’s 205; Gerritt Cole (4.26 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 203 IP) is probably the best match to Arrieta in terms of groundball and strikeout rates. The seasons of Martinez and Cole were considered disappointments, mind you—very good pitchers having off years for one reason or another. One pitcher finished with 2.9 fWAR, namely Ervin Santana (3.28 ERA, 4.46 FIP, 211 1/3 IP) though as a flyball-oriented pitcher who doesn’t miss many bats he’s not a great stylistic match.
The problem isn't just 2018, however. It's that recent free agent history doesn't offer a whole lot encouragement regarding long-term pitcher deals. Starting with the 2008–09 offseason, there have been nine contracts of four years signed by free agent pitchers, six of them now complete. Only three — namely those of Mark Buehrle, Ryan Dempster and Santana (whose deal ends after 2018) have produced at least 10 bWAR. In fact, those three are the only ones that have produced more than 1.9 WAR, though James Shields (1.0 through three years) and Brandon McCarthy (0.2 through three years) at least have a fighting chance at the low-end figure.
Arrieta is a better pitcher than most of those guys (Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ricky Nolasco being the others), but those aren't great odds of fulfillment. The story of five-year deals in that span is no prettier, with Cliff Lee's the only one out of 10 that's been worth more than 6.9 bWAR. The active pacts of Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy, Mike Leake, Jeff Samrdzija, Jordan Zimmermann have together totaled 12.7 bWAR in 10 seasons, and each still has three years to run. Again, Arrieta may be a better pitcher than any of those guys, but he's also starting his deal at an older age.
Then again, Arrieta's age may mean less than his mileage (1,161 1/3 career innings). Through their age-31 seasons, 17 of the 19 pitchers who signed four- or five-year deals had considerably more innings than Arrieta to that point. McCarthy (989 1/3) and C.J. Wilson (910 1/3) were the only pitchers with fewer, and they had serious injury issues during the lives of their deals.
Ultimately, Arrieta’s low mileage may be one of the keys to his getting a contract that might otherwise appear out of line with his regression from Cy Young form—that, plus the fact that he's never had Tommy John surgery and might be the best pitcher on the open market. Still, any long-term pitching contract is fraught with the danger that injury or regression could make its subject an ordinary arm, or an unavailable one, and Arrieta’s recent trend hardly exempts him from that possibility.