Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Why We Should Watch Jake Arrieta

I watched as Jake Arrieta's home scoreless inning streak was broken by the Milwaukee Brewers last week. He got a bit unlucky: a liner in just the wrong spot (of course he'd gotten lucky in getting the streak). Before that, he had gone 52.2 innings without yielding a run. In his last 26 games, he is 24-2 and his only game with an ERA over 3.00 was a playoff loss to the Mets. He is averaging less than 1 walk/hit per inning, though that's been happening since 2014. He is throwing no hitters and racking up award after award.

He has been recently dogged by PED speculation.

I'm not going to go into the ethics/morality of PED usage. I rooted for the Barry Bonds' Giants teams unabashedly and still claim those teams as building blocks of my fandom. Barry remains the greatest hitter I've ever seen, though Giancarlo and Bryce are trying their best to change my mind. I wish Barry was in our clubhouse instead of Miami's. But this isn't about Barry, and really, it's not even about PEDs.

I get it. Baseball's culture and history are irrevocably connected to PEDs, and we are reminded of that fact all the time, whether it's another player getting suspended, or the annual hand-wringing over Hall of Fame voting. I'm fine with the testing and the haranguing of those that are embroiled in controversy. But Jake Arrieta is not.

What he is: a pitcher who averaged an ERA over 5 in two straight seasons for Baltimore. A pitcher who was traded to Chicago, after 5 mostly disastrous starts in 2012, and expected to struggle to make the rotation. Who dazzled immediately with the Cubs, playing in one of the most pitcher friendly parks in the league (even more so than AT&T park). A pitcher who, 9 years removed from his first game in the Arizona Fall League, having spent over 4 years riding bad buses playing in minor league stadiums, is considered one of the best in the business.

All of this speculation seems to come from the fact that one year, Jake was bad, and the next, dominant. His biggest sin was not fitting the narrative of the star baseball player. Madison Bumgarner was a precocious rookie pitching in the Series; you could see from his cool demeanor his path to 2014's Game 7. Before him, Tim Lincecum dallied just over a year in the minors before making the leap. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were lauded as teenagers.

The problem with this PED nonsense is that it takes away from what Jake Arrieta is doing RIGHT NOW. And baseball just can't afford to do that. Jake's next start is TONIGHT, against the Pirates, whom he held scoreless in their last meeting in the 2015 National League Wild Card Game. After that, you'll have to wait for days to see him again - such is the life of a pitcher. In fact, he could have only 25-30 more starts this whole year (including playoffs).

If Trout has a bad game, he often can bounce back less than 24 hours later. Same for Harper, Stanton, Machado, and Bryant. But the pitcher is the strangest, most mysterious position in all of sports. They play defense, but are told to attack. They rarely take the field with their teammates, and rarely finish games they start. They don't hit, unless they're in San Francisco (#PitchersWhoRake). Their overarching goal is to deceive, not overpower. If they do their job, the scoreboard is a litany of 0s - a game in which nothing happens at all. If they do their job well, we might be deceived altogether and forget their games to history.

The best pitcher I've ever watched was Greg Maddux. What I loved most about him was how low-key he was: His effortless, perfect delivery, the ball that seem to catch just the outside of the zone, how his fastball averaged high-80s on a good day. I don't know if a similar pitcher gets drafted today. Instead he dominated the majors for over twenty years, including 7 straight seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA (I regret not catching those years - I didn't start paying attention to baseball until the turn of the century). Through all that dominance, he started 740 games.

That's pretty long for a pitcher. Matt Cain has started only 296 in his career, and every day it seems like he'll add fewer and fewer starts to the end of that list. Lincecum is out of baseball after 261 starts. As freakish an athlete he is, he probably only had 155 or so career quality starts (Bill James Game Score over 50). 155. That's fewer games than LeBron James has played in his second stint with the Cavs. Great pitchers, these ethereal entities, just don't last. Players like Maddux and Nolan Ryan are the exception.

Jake Arrieta has 143 career quality starts. Of course, he isn't having issues with his command, a crazy contortionist delivery, or trouble dealing with a few ticks off his fastball, things that doomed Lincecum.
But the hard truth is that we don't know how many more of these starts we'll ever see from Arrieta. Hitters can just keep hitting until they're gray. A-Rod hasn't been able to turn on right handers for YEARS. Pitchers don't have that luxury. You lose a bit of command, and it could be over.

That's why I'm going to tune in tonight to see Cubs at Pirates. I want to see with my own eyes, one more time, Jake Arrieta doing his thing, and I'm not going to let PEDs worry me, even a little. Hopefully I'll be able to see this many more times (though if they meet the Giants in the postseason, just know that it's an #EvenYear). Jake Arrieta is a gem. He should be appreciated, by all baseball fans, right now. What he's doing, what he's done, is extraordinary, and we are blessed to be fans of this game.

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