The Case For Jake Arrieta as the Most Dominant Pitcher of All Time

C.R.A.P.  It’s a fairly modern affliction that affects a great deal of people like you and me — and by ‘you and me’ I mean internet users.  It’s clear that the internet, like all of mankind’s greatest achievements, is not without drawbacks.  Never before have we been so connected, and never before have we heard the terms: Athazagoraphobia (Fear of missing out), ‘Paradox of Choice’, and ‘Intellectual Technologies’ (just Google it — because I can’t remember what it means).  The level of connectedness is so intense that on a day-to-day basis, I feel like I meet people whose personalities are plagiarized patchworks of charismatic, yet ill-informed internet voices (myself included).  And then, of course, there’s C.R.A.P., which stands for Combative Responses to Antipodal Posts.  An amusing component of C.R.A.P. is the ferocity with which contrary opinions are met with online; I have experienced 30 years of life and not once have I heard strangers communicate with each other in the manner that they do in the comments section of baseball blog posts on the internet.

To be clear, I’m not completely condemning the common vernacular found in said comments sections, because debate and conversation simply happen differently when we’re responding to a pun that’s a screen name rather than a face with eyes.  On Thursday, the 21st of April, Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece titled, The Case for Noah Syndergaard as Baseball’s Best Pitcher, and the comments section is littered with people who suffer from C.R.A.P.  In my opinion, if you actually read the article, you’d be able to tell that Jeff isn’t declaring Syndergaard the best pitcher, but based on his stuff and recent results, there’s definitely a case for it, hence the title.  Essentially, I think Jeff is saying that it’s possible Syndergaard is taking that step, and he’s open to the idea.  Jeff did a great job (as always, thank you, Jeff) as evidenced by reactions to the article.  He got us thinking and he got us discussing — some of us liked what Jeff had to say and some of us clearly weren’t receptive to the idea.  At all.  To his credit, Jeff did exactly what he’s supposed to do.

Now before we nosedive into the reasoning behind the outlandish title of this article, I want to get a few things out of the way: First and foremost, I’m sorry for throwing gasoline on an already raging fire.  Second, I think Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball because of his sustained dominance (1.98 ERA over his last 1066.1 IP).  Certainly that doesn’t mean that pitchers can’t be better than Kershaw for a period of time, however, it’s just that while others rise and fall to his level, Kershaw remains.  And finally, I think Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher of all time.  That’s partly because I was born in 1985, and partly because I read it on the internet.  Mentioning Pedro is a good time to tie back into Jeff’s article.  To quote:

…Right now, in 2016, Syndergaard has a 23 ERA- and a 22 FIP-, through three starts…

Believe it or not, Kershaw has 37 three-start stretches with an ERA- no higher than 23. He has just seven three-start stretches with an FIP- no higher than 22. What Syndergaard is doing, Kershaw has done several times. But it’s not like this is Kershaw’s resting level. And Syndergaard is just as much about the scouting as he is about the stats.

That 23 ERA- just happens to be the number I was looking for.  During his peak (97 – 03), Pedro was preposterously good, posting a K-BB% of 26.1%, a 47 ERA-, and a 52 FIP-.  The acme of his peak came in a 22-game stretch spanning the 1999-2000 seasons when he posted an ERA- of 23 and an FIP- of 33.  His K-BB% was an unruly 34%, and he allowed just 95 hits in 168.1 IP.  Marvel at the overall line: 

August 3, 1999 – June 14, 2000

GS IP TBF H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP FIP GSv2 K-BB% ERA- FIP-
22 168.1 635 95 25 21 7 31 247 1.12 0.75 1.51 84 34.0% 23 33

Again, that 23 ERA- is what I’m focusing on because it’s the number we saw in Mr. Sullivan’s article.  I could not find a better or equal stretch of dominance, based on ERA-, over 22 games, than Pedro’s going back to 1969…until Jake Arrieta.  Looking at only regular-season games, dating back to July 2nd of 2015, Arrieta has produced that magic 23 ERA- number we’re looking for:

July 2, 2015 – April 21, 2016

GS IP TBF H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP FIP GSv2 K-BB% ERA- FIP-
22 162 590 84 19 16 4 31 159 0.89 0.71 2.12 75 21.7% 23 55

For those of you who prefer FIP I say leave your C.R.A.P. in the comments section, because as we gain more data, we learn that pitchers have some modicum of control over the quality of contact they allow, and at this point it’s probably safe to say that Jake Arrieta is a proven FIP-beater, even if he’s earned this title in less time than it takes others.  But Arrieta’s streak is now actually at 24 starts in the regular season, and two of those have been no-hitters.  His line:

June 21, 2015 – April 21, 2016

GS IP TBF H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP FIP GSv2 K-BB% ERA- FIP-
24 178 647 91 20 17 4 33 173 0.86 0.70 2.09 76 21.6% 22 54

Pop the confetti!  Blow your vuvuzelas! Or Tweet!  That 22 ERA- is something we’ve never seen over such a large quantity of starts (at least going back to 1969 — and at least with my hack-job research)!

What this means in the scope of baseball’s long history isn’t nothing.  It’s a marvelous line.  Of course, it is just one number I’m looking at, and ERA-, like the internet, is not without flaws.  It’s arguable and perhaps even likely that Pedro’s line, with that 34.0% K-BB%, is more impressive (that mark was 293% better than league average — lolz).  But Arrieta has two no-hitters.  However, if we look at quality of opponents, well, Pedro’s line becomes more impressive because the teams he squared off against combined for an average wRC+ of 102, whereas Arrieta’s opponents averaged 94 wRC+.

Dave Cameron wrote an article about Arrieta’s ability to control the quality of contact he allows, and as we learn more about this skill, perhaps we’ll revere it a little more — never as much as strikeouts, but definitely more than we do now.  One of Jeff’s points about Syndergaard is that he undoubtedly has the arsenal and command to become the game’s top arm.  Arrieta has legit weaponry as well, but I don’t think anything we’ve ever seen from a starter matches what Syndergaard is throwing.  We know Arrieta’s story up to this point, which makes his sudden-ish ascent to a level where he can put a streak together like the one he’s on more interesting, if not more impressive.  What he does from now until the end of his career will go a long way in determining the weight this current streak holds.  If he flames out, or loses his ability to induce weak contact, it will be seen as a lucky blip; but if he rallies off another few years of 5 – 8 WARs and 50 ERA-es, then we’ll feel better about objectively putting his streak into an historical perspective.  As of right now, even despite his current run, I’m nowhere near putting Arrieta’s name in with the all-time greats (yes, the title was click-bait, spare me the C.R.A.P.), but, like Jeff in regards to how he feels about Syndergaard, but to a lesser extent, I’m open to it.  And that’s about as far as it goes for me — but I’m so contented to sit here and watch the debate unfold, violently, online.



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AndreDawsonsCreek
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AndreDawsonsCreek

You forgot to mention he has a 49 inning scoreless streak at Wrigley!

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

E.r.a- is already league adjusted so the fact Pedro faced better hitters doesn’t matter. Its reflected in the non adjusted e.r.a.

raws
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raws

The premise that clickbait is defensible, and contentious responses need disciplining is lazy. A domesticated readership sucks balls. *caffeine.

raws
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raws

Quick addition, that I do enjoy the work dodski. And an ability to handle nuance is a reason I return to Fangraphs. But I stand by the basic tenor of above comment, too.

A Flock of Seagers
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A Flock of Seagers

And regarding LOB% and BABIP, luck is luck, no matter who you’re playing against. And don’t try the ‘Cubs pitchers don’t allow hard contact’ argument again because I just showed that’s wrong.