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Anyone But Arrieta: Jake Needs to be Out of the Rotation

Breaking down why Jake Arrieta needs to be removed from the Cubs' rotation and how the Cubs got here in the first place.
Chicago Cubs

Jake Arrieta

If you thought the front office made a mistake by getting rid of Jake Arrieta prior to the 2018 season, you’re not going to enjoy the rest of this article. Cue the parental advisory warnings. 

As a lifelong Cubs fan and longtime Arrieta fan, this pains me to write. The former Cy Young Award winner doesn’t have it. He’s not effective anymore. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but whatever hopes we had for him this season, at least at this point, have died. Arrieta owns a 5-9 record with a 6.30 ERA, and he’s allowed 17 home runs in only 74.1 IP. He gave up 16 home runs all of 2016 in 197.1 IP. Making matters worse, he has an 8.59 ERA in 12 starts since April 30.

Following last Wednesday’s blown seven-run first-inning lead and eventual 15-7 loss to the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers, here’s what manager David Ross had to say. “We’re going to reset this off-day and go from there. I don’t know who we would replace him with.”

Fast forward to Tuesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Arrieta got the nod. Let’s just say things didn’t go well. They went as expected. Arrieta allowed seven earned runs and was pulled before the end of the second inning. His final line was 1.2 IP, six hits, seven runs (all earned), two walks, four strikeouts, and one home run allowed. More strikeouts and fewer walks, but overall just as bad as his last start when he failed to get out of the second inning.

Before we get into “who we would replace him with,” let’s take a look back in time to see how we got here. Although it might be difficult to digest, try to view it as therapeutic as I do while writing it.

The History

Arrieta has given Cubs fans some of the best memories and moments ever. As aforementioned, he won an NL Cy Young Award in 2015. He went on one of the most dominant stretches of pitching in baseball history, racking up 147 strikeouts with a 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts. During that span, opponents slashed .150/.200/.210 against him. The Cubs won 18 of his last 20 starts, while Arrieta’s record over that time was 16-1, including four complete games and one no-hitter. He finished the season with a 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA. Also, who could forget his dominating complete game shutout in the Wild Card Game against the Pittsburgh Pirates?

In 2016, he remained a solid pitcher and was a pivotal component to a successful World Series Championship that ended an 108-year drought. He was an 18-game winner with a 3.10 ERA, and threw another no-hitter on April 21, 2016 at Cincinnati. He also became the first Cubs pitcher to win multiple World Series starts since Lon Warneke in 1935.

With all of that said, 2016 was when he started to look human again. His xFIP climbed more than a whole point from 2015 (2.61 to 3.68). Additionally, he was showing some signs of decline and even more so in the 2017 season. In 2017, Arrieta finished with a 14-10 record and 3.53 ERA. His xFIP rose even more to 4.11. His 45.1 percent groundball rate was his lowest mark since the 2013 season. Also, his 34.4 percent fly ball rate was his highest since 2013.

Now to the harsh realities. The Cubs didn’t make a mistake by letting Arrieta walk and signing Yu Darvish ahead of the 2018 season. The fans made a mistake by quickly judging and discarding Darvish as if he was nothing in his first season with the team. The team certainly could’ve used him, but he struggled and dealt with injury. Those things happen. Injuries happen. People forget Darvish was coming off an All-Star season in 2017 and was a Cy Young runner-up in 2013. Not to mention, Arrieta is a full year older than Darvish, and both pitchers were on the wrong side of 30.

I don’t believe it was only injuries with Darvish that led to his first season struggles with the team. What proof do I have? Nothing tangible, but everything historical. Remember Darvish pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series? Remember the Houston Astros giving him some of the worst beatings ever in that series? Darvish failed to get out of the second inning in each of his two starts and didn’t strike out a single batter. Many speculated and said Yu was tipping pitches. Come to find out, two years later, the Astros were cheating.

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So, what does this have to do with Darvish’s struggles? Maybe everything. What does this have to do with his injury? Maybe nothing. There’s a lot to digest here. First of all, Darvish’s confidence was shaken. How would it not be? He pooped the bed in the biggest games of his life. At least, that’s how he must’ve felt. Getting tossed a bag of money by the Cubs doesn’t remove one’s personal doubts. That only means he’s a well-paid man. Yu do Yu, right? If someone’s going to pay him, he’s going to take the money. He’d be an idiot not to. That doesn’t mean he believes in himself. With that said, the Cubs were betting on his potential and career track record.

Eventually, Darvish rediscovered himself. It took him up until about the halfway point of the 2019 season for him to feel like himself and find his groove fully. Then, he went on an absolute tear, pitching 81.2 innings with a 2.76 ERA, 118 strikeouts, and only seven walks after the All-Star break. In the 2020 shortened season, Darvish finished second in Cy Young voting for the second time in his career. He worked 76 innings with 93 punchouts, 14 walks, and a 2.01 ERA. If you combine the second half of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, that’s almost an entire season’s worth of dominance.

My point is, Darvish was pitching extremely well. So far this season, he has a 2.65 ERA in 17 games started for the Padres. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Cubs traded Darvish to save money. It’s as simple as that. They brought back Arrieta on a cheaper one-year, $6 million contract to pander to fans. At the time, I wasn’t against the reunion. Admittedly, it was nice to see Jake back in a Cubs uniform. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to feel as though we’ve been robbed. The front office made the right decision (which some felt was wrong) picking Darvish the first time. And the wrong decision, picking Arrieta this time. 

Along with the warning signs he showed before leaving the Cubs, Arrieta has declined every year since he originally departed from the team by having a worse ERA and xwOBA than each previous year. Take a look at his baseballsavant page. The page is littered with blue, which if you aren’t familiar with the site, is not good. That means all of the advanced metrics point to him as one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Something has to change.

Who could realistically replace him in the rotation? Let’s look at some of the internal options.

Out with the Old, In with the New(ish)

Trevor Williams – Williams is the first to come to mind, considering he only lost his rotation spot due to a faulty appendix. The Cubs activated Williams from the 10-day IL ahead of Tuesday’s game. He worked 3.2 innings and allowed six hits while giving up seven runs. Only three of those runs were earned. Not that Williams is some huge upgrade, but whatever he can give you would be better than what Arrieta currently is.

Keegan Thompson – The rookie right-hander has been great out of the bullpen, sometimes pitching multiple innings in relief for manager David Ross. With a 1.74 ERA, he's been good in that role, but there’s some real potential as a starter. Currently, where the team is record-wise, they might want to see what they have in Thompson to see if he can be a starter for years to come.  

Justin Steele – Steele is a 25-year-old power left-handed pitcher who has appeared in 11 games this season as a reliever. He had a 2.03 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 13.1 IP before being placed on the 10-day IL with a right hamstring strain on May 21. Outside of this season, most of his work in the minors was as a starting pitcher. In his most recent rehab outing on July 3, he pitched two hitless innings. It’s possible the Cubs are stretching him out to start games with the parent club. At the very least, he should be back with the big league team soon.

Cory Abbott – The Cubs’ 14th ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, has made four big league appearances out of the bullpen. He has a 4.32 ERA with six strikeouts and five walks. Since being optioned to Iowa on June 20, he’s made two starts and pitched five innings with three earned runs in each game. Abbott’s Triple-A 24.2 K-BB percent stands out. He has a 5.88 ERA at Iowa, but his K-BB percent is better than anyone currently in the Cubs’ rotation. Also, all of his eight games at Iowa have been starts. Like Thompson and Steele, they might want to see what he can do. Of the potential in-house options, he’s probably last on the totem pole.

What's Next?

Not only is Arrieta pitching poorly enough to be removed from the rotation, but if Cubs are indeed selling at the deadline, Arrieta has lost all value as a potential trade chip. Who in their right mind would send anything of significance for his services at this time? Will the Cubs DFA Arrieta? I don’t know. It could be a situation where they say, “Hey, go be a mop-up guy in the bullpen.” They also could opt to place him on the injured list with a made up injury.

As for now, his turn in the rotation lines up for Sunday at home against the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals. When asked about Arrieta’s presumed next start, here’s what manager David Ross had to say. “I’ve got to look at that. We’ve got a lot going on. 11 losses in a row. I think there’s a lot to look at. I’ll wrap my brain around this one tonight and try to attack the problems in the morning.”

Jake Arrieta will forever be one of my favorite Cubs, and there’s a special place in history for him. But the fact of the matter is, just about anyone would be a better option than him at this point in time. In the midst of an 11-game losing streak, Ross needs to do something. We'll see what the Cubs do with his spot in the rotation moving forward.