What Should We Make of Jake Arrieta and the Cubs' Recent Stumbles?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 3, 2016

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta reacts after giving up a two-run home run to New York Mets' Neil Walker, rear, during the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, July 2, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Jake Arrieta is trying to author a worthy follow-up to a Cy Young-winning season, and he's doing it on a Chicago Cubs team that's trying to end a 108-year championship drought.

Nobody ever said accomplishing either task would be easy.

After losing the first two games of a four-game series against the New York Mets, the Cubs turned to Arrieta on Saturday hoping he would at least give them a chance to escape Citi Field with a split. Instead, Arrieta kicked things off with a 35-pitch first inning that included a two-run homer by Neil Walker, and ultimately lasted just five and one-third in a 4-3 loss.

With that, Arrieta turned a meager two-start skid into a slightly more concerning three-start skid:

Jake Arrieta's Last 3 Starts
6/22vs STL5421046
6/27@ CIN5455154
7/2@ NYM5.1844124

A 5.96 ERA over three starts doesn't constitute a disaster, but it's still jarring once you remember this is the same guy who posted a 1.77 ERA last season. And for any pitcher, a 14-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over three starts is...not good.

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The Cubs have other problems—and we'll get to those—but this is one they particularly don't want to deal with. It's supposed to be Easy Win Day when Arrieta pitches. It hasn't been recently, and that obviously raises the question of what's wrong.

Jul 2, 2016; New York City, NY, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) pitches against the New York Mets during the second inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Arrieta appears to be OK physically. Brooks Baseball can show his arm slot has been reasonably consistent all year. The same goes for his velocity. And though he didn't have his best stuff against the Mets, he did sit around 94 mph with his sinker and climbed as high as 95.6 mph

As that K/BB ratio suggests, Arrieta's bigger problem has been execution. To an extent, this isn't just a blip on the radar.

Arrieta's overall strike percentage is down from 65.2 in 2015 to 63.2 in 2016. A primary issue has been his command of his sinker. Going into Saturday, he was putting a smaller percentage of his sinkers in the strike zone than he was in 2015:

  • 2015: 55.1 percent
  • 2016: 51.2 percent

These aren't perfectly clear windows into what's up with Arrieta's command. But they back up what the eye test has been saying all along: relative to last year's overwhelmingly great performance, Arrieta hasn't been as sharp in 2016.

But before we go turning a molehill into a mountain, here's a good point from Ryan M. Spaeder:

Ryan M. Spaeder @theaceofspaeder

Arrieta has 2.33 ERA this season and everyone is losing their mind. God forbid you don't throw a no-hitter every dozen starts.

Arrieta's ERA was 1.74 before he hit this rough patch, but a 2.33 ERA is still pretty darn good. And with 115 strikeouts in 108.1 innings pitched, he hasn't needed a ton of help from the baseball gods to get his ERA low. He's still slinging some nasty stuff.

As for Arrieta's command of that stuff, at least he's aware he can't keep doing the same things and expect different results.

"It's a game of adjustments," Arrieta said after the St. Louis Cardinals beat him June 22, per Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. "I have to take it in stride and learn from it and go back to work tomorrow and combat the things that teams have done against me recently. It's an easy fix. I think the byproduct will be very positive."

So far, it hasn't been an easy fix. But in light of what Arrieta did last season and what he's done this season even despite some issues, he's more than deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

In the realm of Cubs-related issues, the big picture is more concerning than what's going on with Arrieta. They've won only four of their last 13 games, with three of those wins coming against the lowly Cincinnati Reds. Go back even further, and they're now just 26-23 since getting out to that incredible 25-6 start.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Such is life when flaws begin to show themselves. And right now, the skipper is well aware of the one that's plaguing his offense.

“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact," Joe Maddon said after Thursday's 4-3 loss, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. "May was not as kind, June we’re falling backwards. We have to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern.”

Making contact was a problem last year, as the Cubs offense led baseball with a 24.5 strikeout percentage. This year, that problem has indeed caught up to them after hiding in April. From April to May to June, the Cubs' strikeout rate has risen from 19.0 to 21.8 to 24.3. They now already have 23 whiffs in two games in July.

Meanwhile, the Cubs are also having issues with their bullpen. Its ERA has gone from 2.72 in April to 3.80 in May to 3.96 in June. They may be getting more antsy about this, as George A. King III of the New York Post recently reported the Cubs had dispatched three scouts to observe the New York Yankees' trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.

Things have certainly changed since that 25-6 start. Around then, it was hard to argue with FanGraphs' Dave Cameron's notion that the Cubs looked like a perfect baseball team. But looking back now, it was obviously too good to be true.

However, a state of panic is not advised.

The Cubs offense may be racking up the whiffs, but whiffs didn't stop it from being dangerous last year. So it goes in 2016. As of this moment, the Cubs still sit atop the National League with 420 runs scored. With an OPS in June (.792) that was much like their OPS in April (.796), they're also not necessarily trending backward. And if Jason Heyward gets going (and he should), this offense will find another gear.

The Cubs' pitching could also be in worse shape. This is mainly because their starters have yet to post an ERA over 3.00 in any month. With Arrieta likely to be fine in the long run, only Jason Hammel's history of slow finishes is worth worrying about.

And as much as everyone is freaking out about the club's bullpen, the last month could have been worse. Remove Adam Warren, Justin Grimm and Joel Peralta from the equation, and Cubs relievers pitched to a 2.66 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 61 innings. Thanks mainly to strong work from Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Trevor Cahill, the core of the bullpen held strong.

The Cubs may no longer be perfect, but their downfall hasn't taken them from "perfect" to "bad." They're still a formidable team. In the parlance of our times, all that's happening now is them going through some [stuff].

It's not pretty, but it probably won't be permanent.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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