Jake Arrieta tugs on his cap, as he always does before a pitch, and steps on the pitching rubber. Denard Span steps into the batters box and readies in his stance. Matt Wieters sets up down and away. Jake Arrieta pumps in a 94 mile per hour fastball, down and away. Span doesn't offer at it, taking strike one. The 2012 season finally begins for the Baltimore Orioles.
Arrieta's gem on Opening Day set the theme for the weekend: pure and utter doom laid down upon the Minnesota Twins, courtesy the Orioles' starting rotation. Even those fans who don't hold much hope for the 2012 season - with much of their ennui coming from the heretofore sorry state of the rotation - had to be warmed by the performance of Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, and Jake Arrieta.
The other side to that coin is that the O's were facing the Minnesota Twins, an offense that plated the second fewest runs in the American League in 2011 and then watched their three best hitters leave through free agency. The Minnesota model that Arrieta saw on Friday afternoon featured just four established major league hitters with a career OPS over .740 against right handers. Two of those hitters, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, are possibly still in recovery mode from various injuries. One of the others, Josh Willingham, is himself a right-hander. Arrieta has limited righties to just a .652 OPS in his career so far, compared to .859 versus lefties.The Twins also did not walk very much in 2011, preferring a high-contact approach.
The deck was stacked in Jake's favor, as it was the rest of the weekend - Hunter even had the fourth righty-masher, Ryan Doumit, sit against him. Did that innate advantage especially matter on Friday afternoon?
Wieters signals for another fastball and sets again, low and away from Span. This one sails away, not even close and the count goes to one-and-one. The story with Arrieta in his career is not that the other team beats him, it's that he beats himself. His stuff has always been good but his ability to rein it in and command it for quality outings is what holds him back. Wieters sets up inside for the third pitch, but this fastball comes in high and tight. Arrieta is close to falling behind his first batter. Wieters sets up down and away again, and the fourth fastball comes in high again and catching plenty of plate. Span hits it, a weak tapper back to the mound. He's out, an easy one-three.
Arrieta's success on Friday is largely attributable to this kind of weak contact. On the day, 18 of the 24 batters he faced put the ball in play but the only well-struck ball was an easy line out to left field from Josh Willingham to end the fourth inning.Two batters did record hits against the Orioles with Arrieta on the mount, but they came on a dying quail to left and a grounder deep in the hole. Beyond those two extremely difficult-to-field hits, the Oriole defense simply wasn't tested.
Arrieta walked the second batter, Jamey Carroll, on six pitches and up steps his first real challenge: Joe Mauer. Wieters again sets down and away and Arrieta pumps in a 96 mile-per-hour fastball, a little up and out but called for strike one. A real sharp curveball comes in next, missing Wieters' outside target but riding the inside half of the plate for a quick oh-two count. Getting ahead and letting his good stuff do the talking, as he would do to nine of his 24 batters, was critical and very encouraging. He would only fall into a three ball count three times, surrendering two walks, but would get to two strikes on 11 batters. Working ahead on Mauer, he eventually got him to ground into a weak one-six-three double play on a curveball in the middle of the plate but with a tremendous amount of drop on it. Inning over.
Arrieta's day was impressive, but not without some discouraging elements. When Mauer came back up to lead off the seventh inning, Wieters' target sat on the low and away corner. Arrieta threw a curveball down and in, not close, fastball up and away, not close, fastball down and in, not close, and finally a fastball up and away, not close, for the four pitch walk.
That was only Arrieta's second and final walk of the day, but he battled his command problems all afternoon. Wieters set up on the outside or inside lower corner for all but one pitch, but splitting the strikezone and surrounding area into quadrants (lower in, lower out, upper in, upper out), Arrieta only hit the targeted quadrant on a quarter of his pitches. Many of those pitches sailed wide of the strike zone, however. He really only hit the glove eight times. The fastball in particular was a struggle, as just 17% of those offerings were relatively on location, compared to 34% of Arrieta's offspeed pitches. Only two of his 53 fastballs hit the glove.
The inability to command his fastball could be a telling reason why he only induced one swing and a miss on it, despite it averaging about an extra mile and a half per hour more speed than it did throughout 2011. The pitch was thrown mostly for strikes, though no more than has been historically the case for Arrieta, and induced weak contact (50% groundballs), but it wasn't getting whiffs.
Conversely, the slider was his best pitch on the day, including from a literal point of view as he unleashed an uncharitable backdoor slider right on the outside corner to strike out Justin Morneau in the seventh. The slider was thrown harder than it's 2011 equivalent and with more spin on it, almost edging into cut-fastball type territory. Arrieta still struggled to throw it for a strike, but induced more swings and misses on it than anything else with three.
Was Arrieta's dominance despite questionable command and a lack of swing-and-miss pitches a function more of his own abilities or more of the Twins' hitters lack thereof? Like any topic taken seriously, it's a gray area. Arrieta's control looked improved throughout the day and his stuff has certainly not suffered after his offseason elbow surgery. It might even be better than it ever was. But like it has always been for Jake, it's a question of how much he can command his pitches, and especially his fastball. Taken objectively, it's hard to give his command a passing grade for his Friday performance. But then, it was just one start. The New York Yankees loom for his next one.
Sources: Brooks Baseball for Pitch F/X information and Classifications, MLB.TV for catcher locations and ball in play types.