The Two Pitchers Who Have Cost Themselves The Most This Year
“Don’t pay attention to the stats until Memorial Day”. That warning against indulging in the small sample size theater that is the first month of the MLB season is salient. Also, it is just about irrelevant. Writers and fans alike will toss out all sorts of small sample size caveats, before launching themselves into the vagaries of early season numbers.
Even so, we are reaching the point where the numbers are getting more meaningful, which means that the outliers are looking more and more notable. On the pitching side, there have been no more surprising seasons than those of Jake Arrieta and Masahiro Tanaka.
These two are among the most interesting players in the game right now. They both possess pretty excellent but fairly short track records. Arrieta has age-related concerns; Tanaka, injury-related concerns. And both are/were slated to be among the most sought-after free agents after this year. They were figures of primary importance, in terms of what they would do for their high-profile teams this year, and what they were likely to do for possible new employers in the future. Their shocking performances so far have left a number questions lingering in the air.
If you told the Yankees before the year that they’d lead the AL East at this point of the year, own the best run differential in the AL, and have boosted their playoff odds as much as almost any other team, well, they’d be elated. But they also would have assumed their ace, Masahiro Tanaka, would be a major part of that. Coming off a season in which he was a legitimate Cy Young contender for the first five months, and anchoring a rotation that looked shaky at the back, Tanaka was key to the Yankees’ hopes entering 2017.
Yet here they are, playing well over a quarter-way through the season, and Tanaka has actively hurt the Yankees’ postseason chances so far. The surface numbers are simply jarring. Here’s where Tanaka ranks right now out of 91 qualified starters: ERA? 88th. FIP? 87th. He’s posted the highest walk rate and lowest strikeout rate of his career so far. He’s allowed six+ runs three times already, including an eight-run meltdown against the Astros on national TV on Derek Jeter Night. 2017 has simply been a nightmare for Tanaka.
Let’s get a couple silver-linings out of the way first. His velocity hasn’t been the problem, as his four-seam fastball is about a full tick up to nearly 93 mph according to Brooks Baseball. Per FanGraphs, his contact rate (74.9%) is lower than his career average, and his swinging strike rate (12.6%) is above his career average. The fact that he’s still getting some whiffs, and the fact that he’s throwing harder than usual, indicates he hasn’t just lost all ability, and that he doesn’t seem to be injured (fears about his partially-torn UCL emerge with every poor start).
So if he hasn’t simply fallen apart physically, what’s really going wrong (other than everything)? His struggles, much like many pitchers, have come back to those tricky balls in play. Nearly a third of his balls in play have resulted in hits, and a quarter of his fly balls have gone for homers, both awful, and certainly unsustainable, rates. Regression to the mean in terms of BABIP and home run should help Tanaka at least bring his ERA below half a dozen.
But pure fortune just can’t explain away his troubles. Turning to Statcast, it appears hard contact has helped do Tanaka in. His average exit velocity (89.4 mph) is up from last year, but it’s about in line with league average. That doesn’t tell the whole story. About 40% of the batted balls he’s allowed have been struck at greater than 95 mph, an above average rate. He’s tied for second in the league in “barrels”, Statcast’s term for very well-struck balls, at 18. So it seems that while his overall exit velocity has been held down by a number of weakly hit balls, he’s been hemorrhaging hard contact, often in the form of long balls.
Before getting to the impact of Tanaka’s struggles on his possible free agency, let’s turn to Arrieta. After a three-year run that established Arrieta among the game’s best hurlers, he’s stumbled out of the gate. His 4.80 ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, as he’s allowed seven unearned runs, bringing his overall runs allowed per nine figure to over six.
Unlike Tanaka, Arrieta has lost velocity, and good chunk of it too. After sitting above 95 mph on his power sinker just two years ago according to Brooks Baseball, he’s all the way down 92.5 mph this year. Nearly three full ticks gone in a year and a half, a highly troubling sign for a player in his early-thirties.
Also unlike Tanaka, though, the underlying numbers aren’t quite as scary. Arrieta owns a still excellent 55-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His BABIP, however, has skyrocketed to .345. Arrieta, due to managing hard contact and a great Cubs’ defense, ran BABIP’s around .240 the past two seasons. A .100 point increase simply must be bound for regression. Plus, his strand rate, 63.7%, is the lowest of his career, indicating he’s had poor luck when it comes to sequencing his runners.
Arrieta looks primed to turn it around somewhat, and he didn’t allow an earned run in six innings the last time out. Even so, this shaky start, and his shaky finish to last year, leaves his status on the free agent market in jeopardy. Once rumored to want $200+ million, he seems unlikely to approach that as a soon-to-be 32-year-old with fast declining velocity.
What will the market yield for Arrieta’s decline phase? Zack Greinke managed to coax $200 million out of Arizona at a similar age, but he was coming off one of the best run prevention seasons ever. If Arrieta fails to achieve is 2015 Cy Young form the rest of the way out, it might be fairer to expect a contract that resembles Greinke’s first free agent contract, the one he signed with the Dodgers before opting out after 2015. That guaranteed Greinke over $140 million over six years.
Tanaka has an opt-out after this year, one he was widely expected to exercise entering the year. After a nightmarish six weeks, that’s less certain. If Tanaka struggles all year and posts an ERA near five, will he opt out of the $67 million he’s due over the next three years?
It’s almost impossible to say just what the market would think of Tanaka if he opted out at age-29, but coming off an awful season, and with his elbow injury still a concern. Could he do better than the three years he has remaining? Probably, but that it’s even a question is remarkable.
The best bet is that Tanaka regains some of his form and manages to re-up on the free agent market. But at this point, Arrieta and Tanaka look like they’re costing themselves a lot this season. Free agent pitching signings always come with risks, and those risks seem to be growing greater with regard to Arrieta and Tanaka. And with both of their teams in the thick of contention, continued poor play could harm more than just their own prospects.