Sometimes prospects who struggle to reach their potential just need a change of scenery, and that appears to be the case with Cubs starter Jake Arrieta. Arrieta was once a top pitching prospect for the Orioles, ranking as one of the Top 100 prospects according to Baseball America in 2009 and 2010. But like many prospects, Arrieta failed to live up to his potential in Baltimore, making a total of 58 starts over three seasons, with an ERA never lower than 4.66. He struggled with his control and gave up the gopher ball quite a bit. Between 2012 and 2013, Arrieta gave up 37 home runs over 234 innings.
While giving up home runs was one of his downfalls, he did show improvement in his peripheral stats in 2012, increasing his strikeouts per nine to 8.56 K/9 from 7.01 K/9 in 2011, and reduced his walk rate below 3.00 for the first time. He started the 2013 season in AAA before being traded in early July to the Cubs, along with reliever Pedro Strop, for starter Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger.
In 2014, his first season in Chicago, he went undrafted in most leagues, as he was viewed as a bust pitching prospect. But, working with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, Arrieta put up a breakout season in 2014, making 25 starts, going 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA, 2.26 FIP, and a 2.73 xFIP. He struck out more than a batter per inning, reduced his walk rate to 2.36 BB/9, kept the ball in the ball park, and induced ground balls at a 49.2% clip. He put up a 4.9 fWAR in his 25 starts, good for 11th in MLB for pitchers who threw 150 or more innings last season. His fWAR was better than that of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, Reds ace Johnny Cueto, Dodgers ace Zack Greinke and Phillies ace Cole Hamels, among others.
To look at just how good Arrieta was last season, here is how he ranked in the various statistical categories for starters who threw more than 150 innings last season:
K/9 - 8th
K% - 6th
K-BB% - 8th
BB/9 - 43rd
ERA - 10th
FIP - 2nd
xFIP - 6th
Most of those rankings tells us that he pitched like an ace last season.
So, how did Arrieta put up an ace-like season in 2014? Well, his pitch velocity stayed relatively the same. But, it appears he decided to throw his slider quite a bit more than he has in the past. According to his PitchFX data on his player page over at FanGraphs, he threw his slider 29.0% of the time last season, a huge increase from 13.8% in 2013. The increased use of the slider improved his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) from 6.8% to 10.2%, and his strikeouts per nine increased as a result. His slider was 15.4 runs above average last season after being in the negative range in his previous two seasons.
The increased use of the slider probably introduces some risk in drafting Arrieta this season, as the slider is known to be torcher on the elbow of many pitchers. But, every pitcher is built differently, have different pitching mechanics, and there is no way to predict if and when he will go down to an injury. Like all pitchers, he comes with some risk, but the step forward he made last season is repeatable.
According to the Mock Draft Army ADP rankings over at Fantasy Alarm, Arrieta's ADP currently sits at 103.9, and is rising. He is currently the 21st starting pitcher off draft boards according to his ADP, and is being selected after pitchers Matt Harvey, Hisashi Iwakuma and Sonny Gray, and before guys like Gerrit Cole and James Shields. I personally ranked him as my 23rd ranked starting pitcher for 2015, but he has the chance to be a fantasy ace for his owners once again in 2015.
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