Narratives are the life blood of sportswriters. And so, it’s easy to summarize Jake Arrieta with a series of narratives. Scott Boras overreached, leading to a complicated three-year, $75 million deal rather than the $200 million target. The target was never realistic because Arrieta has declining peripherals. Pitchers tend to mysteriously disappear overnight in their early to mid-30s. Not all pitchers. Many. Most?
These are all familiar narratives regarding Arrieta’s surprisingly long stint in free agency. After signing on March 11 to join an awkwardly positioned Phillies roster, we now have a number of new tales to add to his storybook.
1. The Phillies are Wild Card Contenders?
Honestly, this was true even before the Phillies signed Arrieta – mostly because the National League is exceptionally fragile. The Wild Cards are going to be decided by off-paper factors like injuries and unanticipated breakouts. The pre-Arrieta Phillies were projected to win 73 to 78 games, depending on your preferred source of projections. That makes them a 75 to 80 win team with Arrieta.
Projections, as you know, are conservative beasts. They’re going to largely ignore the potential for the Phillies bullpen to be among the five best in the league. Check out the performance of Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos, and Victor Arano after the start of August.
Arano is probably ticketed to start in the minors. He could be a relief ace. Maybe Morgan and Ramos remain among the top 30 relievers, as they were down the stretch. Hector Neris is a fine if unexceptional closer. Pat Neshek is a control freak and funk doctor. Tommy Hunter could take another step forward by throwing more cutters. Based on comments, he seems to know.
Consider the offense. Rhys Hoskins may be a monster. Or just a guy (i.e. Justin Bour-like). Either way, that’s a useful mid-lineup bat. J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Maikel Franco, and others all have breakout potential. Aaron Altherr is among the best fourth outfielders in the league. Roman Quinn, if ever healthy, quietly has a poor man’s Trea Turner-like offensive profile. These guys populate the bottom half of what could be a potent batting order. The roster has plenty of depth to absorb an injury – except at shortstop.
The rotation has potential to surprise too. Everybody in the world is predicting an Aaron Nola breakout – specifically because it’s already happened. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez may rebound. Further rotation depth, headlined by Nick Pivetta, could also spontaneously improve.
All told, the projections seemingly undersell the volatility of this roster. I see a 69 to 93 win team.
2. Citizen’s Bank Smallpark
Back when Citizen’s Bank Park was a brand spankin’ new venue, it quickly earned a reputation as a bandbox. A change to the left field dimensions temporarily moved the park to within shouting distance of neutral. In recent years, the stadium has reverted to massively home run friendly. Behold.
Park Factor for left-handed power: 116 (i.e. 16 percent above average)
Park Factor for right-handed power: 132 (i.e. 32 percent above average)
Compare those to the home run factors for Coors Field – 116 and 126 respectively. Philadelphia is MORE homer friendly than Colorado. Insane. Of course, CBP suppresses other types of offense and is thus a run-neutral park. Coors Field buffs every type of offense and therefore is massively offense friendly. Just an observation.
How might Arrieta live into this new environment? Over the last three seasons, he’s gone from a homer-suppressing monster (0.39 HR/9 in 2015) to roughly league average (1.23 HR/9 in 2017). The decline matches an increase of fly balls (from 23 to 28 to 34 percent) and a corresponding increase of hard contact allowed (from 22 to 25 to 29 percent). Notably, the 2017 version of Arrieta can still be said to be a contact-management pitcher.
Arrieta benefited from some quality defensive catchers while in Chicago. Philadelphia, by contrast, has some of the worst catchers in the league. This could affect Arrieta’s ability to limit quality of contact. Even with these concerns, his profile as a ground ball pitcher with plenty of soft contact should map fairly well to his new ballpark.
3. Support Staff
This ties back to the volatility mentioned in #1. As an industry, we tend to overrate the importance of supporting staff, especially with regard to pitcher wins. Even so, run and bullpen support are part of the formula. As a Cub, Arrieta was ensured quality run support. His bullpen could be counted on to hold his leads. As a result, he won 14 of 30 starts last season. He recorded victories in 22 of 33 starts in his superb 2015 campaign. Obviously, the 2015 shouldn’t really inform our expectations. I simply mention it as interesting ephemera.
By comparison, check out Chris Archer. He’s never had the same offensive or relief support. Despite throwing far more innings with better peripherals than Arrieta (innings are perhaps the leading indicator for wins), Archer only won 10 games in 34 starts. It was a very typical win total for him. Fantasy owners want 15 or more wins from their “aces.”
The Phillies offense could be among the five best in the National League. They may be among the five worst too. Volatility. They definitely have the personnel for a superior bullpen, but they may need to feel around for half a season before they find the formula – like in 2017 when the team had the sixth worst ‘pen in the first half and the seventh best relief corps in the second half. They really turned the corner August 1.
Basically, Arrieta may see his win total collapse due to Archer-like support staff. Or he may continue to notch a decision in the vast majority of his outings. How’s that for useful advice?
I don’t have a direct answer to what we should expect from Arrieta-the-Phillie. He’ll probably continue his slow decline. He should remain useful to fantasy owners. By virtue of appearing on an actual roster, we’ll see his 102 ADP rise into the double digits.
Don’t be surprised if he starts the season on the 10-day disabled list. Via backdating, he’d only miss the first week of the season.