The Arrieta Signing is . . . not good
Scott Boras is happy, but the Phillies won’t be for long.
There’s a script for how to rebuild a baseball team. It was written by Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who was hired in December 2011 after a disastrous 56–106 season. At the time, the Astros had emerged from a decade of middling mediocrity and three straight losing seasons. Astros owner Jim Crane gave Luhnow, a former St. Louis Cardinals executive with business experience (including a five-year stint at McKinsey & Co.), a simple mission: turn the ship around.
Others have written in greater detail about how exactly Luhnow pulled it off, but the strategy was simple. The Astros would trade short-term failure for long-term success, keeping payroll low (a mere $22 million on opening day in 2013) while acquiring high draft picks, signing unheralded international players, and cultivating that homegrown talent through their farm system.
The plan obviously worked. After losing 324 games in 2011–2013 (including two successive win-loss declines after Luhnow’s hiring), the Astros clawed their way back to relevance, winning 70 games in 2014, and climbing above .500 in 2015 and 2016. 2017 obviously was the most successful of them all, as Sports Illustrated’s famous 2014 prediction came true.
The 75 Million Dollar Arm
Now let’s talk about the Philadelphia Phillies, who dominated the National League East from 2007 to 2011. The Phils appeared in the playoffs every year, advanced to the NLCS thrice, the World Series twice, and won it all in 2008. Their World Series win happened despite what was essentially a league-average payroll (12th), but as their payroll climbed to 7th, 4th, and 2nd in the league from 2009–2011, the Phillies’ playoff fortunes reversed. 2011, their last winning season, included 102 regular season wins but a divisional payoff loss to — who else? — Jeff Luhnow’s Cardinals, who would go on to win the World Series that year before Luhnow departed for the Astros.
Now the Phillies find themselves in a position similar to that of the Astros in 2011, trying to move from punchline to tagline. Until the Jake Arrieta signing, all looked like it was going according to to plan. J.P. Crawford, Sixto Sanchez, Jorge Alfaro, Scott Kingery, and Mickey Moniak headline a stocked farm system that in most rankings is a top-5 or top-6 pipeline. The Phillies’ payroll was the lowest in the majors ($46M) until the Arrieta signing, which bumped the Phillies to fourth-lowest, per spotrac.
Arrieta signed a three year, $75M contract with the Phillies on March 11th. The $25M average annual value (AAV) of the contract ties Stephen Strasburg for the 7th-highest pitcher salary in baseball, and the $30M that Arrieta will receive this year makes him 3rd-highest paid pitcher in all of baseball — ahead of Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish. The obvious argument for signing Arrieta is that the Phillies have money to burn. Sure, he’s a bit of a wild card, but why shouldn’t the Phillies take a flyer on him? I’m here to tell you that it’s not a good idea.
Now it’s not a terrible deal. It’s a three year contract with declining salaries in each successive year, and there’s a team option at the end. If Arrieta doesn’t work out, Matt Klentak’s grandkids won’t be footing the bill. This is not a reincarnation of the disastrous 2012 Matt Cain extension. But still, throwing money after expensive contracts is a surefire way to lock up future funds that you may need at a more opportune time — which is why the Phillies are still on the hook for $2.5M of Cole Hamels’ salary this year, three years after they traded him to the Texas Rangers. And even though Arrieta has been great in the past, the signs point to this being an unwise move.
Arrieta’s Cy Young-winning season in 2015 was incredible. He posted 7.3 fWAR, threw 232 innings in 33 games started, and induced ground balls on over half of his hit pitches with a sinker and slider that have top-15 vertical movement. Watch the first four at-bats in the below video and you’ll see what I mean.
But the 2016 and 2017 versions of Arrieta have borne little resemblance to the Cy Young edition. After relying on his slider for 29.3% of his pitches in 2015, he threw it just 14% of the time in 2017, compensating by throwing his sinker more (60.8% from 43.2%). But his sinker velocity slipped almost 3 mph (95.3 to 92.4) and his slider dropped in that same timespan from 90.8 to 88.2.
Arrieta’s Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) of 2.35 in 2015 was second-best in the MLB; his FIP last year (4.16) was 31st, sandwiched between Tanner Roark and Alex Cobb (Roark is on a 1 year, $6.475M contract with the Nationals; Cobb just signed a contract with the Orioles with a $14.25M AAV over four years — less than half of the money Arrieta is making with Philadelphia this year). As the chart below shows, there has been a roughly inverse relationship between Arrieta’s FIP and his ability to induce ground balls — a decline in the latter is correlated with a rise in the former. And since 2015, Arietta’s ability to do that has plummeted:
Some of this is probably due to the so-called “fly-ball revolution”, wherein league-wide fly-ball rates have climbed dramatically in the last two years. Arrieta is not the only pitcher to fall victim to this trend, but he’s likely especially vulnerable to it given his precipitous velocity declines and reduced movement on his best pitches . He also doesn’t have a commanding fastball that he can employ in the way that a pitcher like Max Scherzer can (notice how Scherzer’s ground ball rate actually climbed last year — and his FIP went down).
Not Bad, Not Great
Lest I’m misunderstood: I’m not contending that Jake Arrieta is suddenly a bad pitcher. He remains an above average-to-good starter who could easily find a place as a #2 starter in almost any rotation in baseball. But my contention is that his signs of decline in his age-31 season make him a risky investment for any team at $30M this year, and that it simply doesn’t make sense for a rebuilding team like the Phillies to spend significant capital on Arrieta and make him one of the highest paid pitchers in the game.
One counterargument to this is that the move makes sense because the Phillies are ready to contend — or at least that’s how ESPN Senior Writer David Schoenfield phrased it in a recent article. But are they really? Fangraphs projects the Phillies to win 75 games, and Bovada has placed the betting line even lower at 73 games — that’s far from a playoff spot with the Nationals and Mets in the division, and the Cardinals, Brewers, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies all projected to win more games but not their division, thus joining the hunt for a wild card.
There is exciting talent on Philadelphia’s roster, but it’s unclear what exactly they have on their hands: Cesar Hernandez is a quick second baseman with a decent OBP but who lacks power; Odubel Herrera is frustratingly inconsistent; Rhys Hoskins started a mid-year Rookie of the Year campaign before looking like a flash in the pan by the end of the season, and J.P. Crawford was the talk of the farm system until an underwhelming 2017. On the pitching side, Nola was very good last year despite some injury trouble, but he’s the closest to a sure thing among the starters. Velasquez has shown flashes of greatness but for the most part has been bad, and Jerad Eickhoff is an average starter.
This isn’t a team that’s ready to contend. That’s not a bad thing — that’s exactly what one would expect when following the Luhnow script. And the Luhnow script does allow for signing pitchers for $30M a year, but only when you’re actively contending and making a World Series run. That’s exactly what the Astros did on August 31st when they acquired Verlander from the Tigers.
This year, Verlander is making $28M as an Astro. He’s their staff ace, he’s poised to help them win another World Series as the fifth-highest paid pitcher in baseball. The pitcher that’s right above him on that salary list? Jake Arrieta.
Go get those 75 wins, Philadelphia. You’ve (over)paid for them.