Should Phillies look beyond Arrieta's numbers?

February 26th, 2018

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The calendar turns to March on Thursday, and is still not playing baseball for anybody.
The longer Arrieta lingers on the market, the better the chances the Phillies would have to sign him before Opening Day. That is one theory, anyway. It is no secret the Phils would love to have Arrieta in their rotation, but they would love him at their price. Sources have told that the Phillies are interested in a three-year contract. Arrieta's agent Scott Boras reportedly believes he can convince a team to sign Arrieta to a contract better than the one signed with the Cubs (six years, $126 million).
Despite the fact the analytics are not particularly favorable to Arrieta, Boras believes his client deserves more years and more money because of the "prestige factor." He told FanRag Sports recently that "analytical evaluation is incomplete. It needs to include prestige, the human element, a leadership dynamic. It also needs to include postseason performance. Analytics are void of that."
It is difficult to imagine the Phillies believing that "prestige" alone is worth an additional two, three or four years and tens of millions of dollars more in a guaranteed contract. The Phils' front office is not one that makes moves based on gut feelings and intangibles like heart, grittiness or prestige. Those might be considered value at the margins.
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The Phillies trust the numbers.'s Daniel Kramer dug into Arrieta's numbers in November. Here is a look at a few and why the Phillies should or should not increase their offer to Arrieta, if talks ever seriously heat up.
Keep it three years
• Arrieta turns 32 on March 6. His fastball velocity has dropped from 95.2 mph to 92.2 mph from 2015-17. Perhaps last season's drop is a result of the Cubs' deep postseason runs in 2015-16. But how many pitchers in their 30s reverse that trend?
• Arrieta won the 2015 National League Cy Young Award in part because he struck out 236 batters and got a ton of weak contact. His 24.8 percent hard-hit rate (rate of contact with 95 mph-plus exit velocities) in 2015 remains the second-best rate tracked in three seasons of Statcast™. It increased to 29.8 percent in 2016 and 32.2 percent last season, which is just under league average.
• Arrieta got a ton of "topped" contact in 2015, or balls driven into the ground that often lead to infield outs. That rate has dropped from 47.8 percent in '15, which ranked fifth in baseball, to 35.7 percent in '17, which ranked 43rd.
The fact that Arrieta's fastball has lost three mph over the past three seasons and the fact hitters are squaring up his pitches more frequently, is probably enough to give the Phillies serious pause about any contract longer than three or four seasons.

Be bold and roll the dice
• Arrieta posted a 4.35 ERA in 18 starts in the first half of 2017, but a 2.28 ERA in 12 starts in the second half. He turned to his sinker more in the second half, throwing it 65.6 percent of the time compared to 58.1 percent before the All-Star break. It remained an effective pitch. Arrieta's .235 expected batting average on the sinker ranked third among pitchers that employed a sinker or two-seam fastball in at least 100 at-bats in the second half. The Nationals and Dodgers went 1-for-8 against it in the postseason.
• Arrieta located his sinker with pinpoint accuracy in the second half, consistently throwing the pitch away from righties and up and away to lefties. Perhaps he made a mechanical adjustment to improve his location.
• Arrieta ranked 42nd out of 128 pitchers (minimum 300 batted balls) in "poor" contact in 2017. (Aaron Nola ranked 17th.) Arrieta might not be getting as much poor contact as in the past, but he still is getting more than most starters.
But are those numbers enough to convince the Phillies to throw caution to the wind and go outside their comfort zone? Reading the tea leaves, probably not. Phils owner John Middleton said just last week, "We don't want to sacrifice something significant in the future by making a short-term move. Whether it's a trade or a signing, if we get the deal we think is right, we'll do it. We'll pull the trigger. Money is zero object. No object whatsoever. [But] we're not going to go out and do something stupid."