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Can’t Shake Jake (Arrieta)

When it comes to prospects and young players, I’m an absolute sucker for tools. Yes, I’m one of those idiots who reaches for B.J. Upton in fantasy drafts. I still follow Mark Prior’s career closer than I should. And the news that Scott Kazmir has started a comeback attempt piqued my interest. I was bullish on Mark Trumbo coming into this season based solely off his insane power, and I near-hopelessly believe that Derek Holland will blossom into an ace one of these years.

In recent years, one of my recurring crushes has focused on Baltimore Orioles starting pitching prospects. Remember how they had a trio of young studs who were supposed to carry the franchise to new heights? Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta were supposed to be The Future. Unfortunately, so were the Hindenburg and the RMS Titanic.

So when Arrieta started off his 2012 season on a dazzling streak of success, I was initially skeptical. After all, Arrieta is 26 years old and he’d shown no sign of putting things together. He was way too wild (11% walk rate) in the past, and even if he were limiting his walks, what were the odds he could keep it up? But then I caught another glimpse of his mid-90 mph fastball and his stellar curveball, and I picked him up in the FanGraphs staff ottoneu league. What can I say, I’m a sucker.

Immediately following this —  of course — Arrieta went into a dark period, and his season line is about what you expected coming into the year. His 6.13 ERA is the second-worst in the majors among all qualified starters, edging out Tim Lincecum by about a third of a run. He hasn’t thrown a pitch at 90% the speed of light, but the end result has been about the same.

And yet, call me crazy. I still believe in Jake Arrieta. Even if the Orioles don’t.

First and foremost, there’s a reason I haven’t given up on Arrieta after 321 innings of 5.00-plus ERA baseball. The guy has top notch “stuff.” His four- and two-seam fastballs both average around 94 mph, and he’s getting nearly as many swinging strikes with his fastballs as David Price (95.5 mph) and Josh Johnson (93 mph). His curveball is his best knock-out pitch and has generated 37% swinging strikes in two-strike counts. His changeup, too, is well above average.

It’s taken Arrieta some time, but it seems like he’s finally beginning to make his repertoire work for him at the major-league level. His strikeout rate (20.1%) is above league average for the first time in his MLB career, and he’s lowered his walk rate dramatically so far this season (from 11% to 7%). He’s finally hitting the zone with his pitches at a league-average rate, which is considerably better than he’d done in the past. As a result, his xFIP and SIERA are both the best they’ve ever been — and they rate him around the same level as pitchers like Dan Haren, Jordan Zimmermann and Jered Weaver.

So what’s Arrieta’s problem? Well, he’s been hit hard (.324 BABIP) and he’s been the second-most un-clutch pitcher in the majors this year (58% LOB%, -1.18 Clutch), so runs are finding a way to sneak in on him. He’s also allowed 13 home runs, which had made his season look a lot like James Shields, circa 2010.

Graph courtesy of the Joe Lefkowitz PITCHF/x Tool.

The more that Arrieta continues to struggle, the more I feel like his problem is similar to what plagued Shields two years ago: inconsistency with pitch location. As much as we like to imagine that BABIP fluctuations have little to do with skill, that’s not entirely true. If you leave pitches over the plate too often, you’re going to get hit — no matter how good your stuff is. Shields dominated lineups back in 2010, but then he fell apart by allowing hard-hit balls off pitches that he left over the plate. Arrieta has gone through periods of dominance, as well. But as you can tell from the above chart, he’s also let some of his pitches — especially his slider and two-seamer — catch far too much of the plate. For that, he’s paid the price. His pitch accuracy may have improved, but his precision still needs work.

Shields eventually fixed his problem and shied away from the pitch that was getting hit hardest; he now throws the fewest number of fastballs among every starter not named R.A. Dickey. And through improved pitch sequencing, he got hitters off balance more often. Pitching backwards and throwing his off-speed pitches in any count were the kinds of changes that helped Shields transition from being a complete disaster in 2010 to being a Cy Young Award contender the next year.

Arrieta might want to start by scrapping his slider — or at least throwing it considerably less often — as he already has two above average off-speed pitches whith his curveball and his change up. His slider has been the one pitch that’s gotten hit the hardest this season, and his cutter has had similar success without being nearly as home-run prone. And if he can then keep improving his command and become more consistent with his fastball location, there’s not much holding him back from success.

Listen to me go: if, if, if, if, if. Considering that the Orioles demoted Arrieta to Triple-A before the All-Star Break, it’s possible that I’m more than slightly delusional at this point. Maybe my fandom is blinding me, but I do think Arrieta isn’t far away from breaking out in a big way. With a few tweaks and a bit more consistency, he could still become an anchor for the O’s pitching staff in the years to come.