The 2007 draft will always be known as the draft where the Orioles selected Matt Wieters with their first overall pick. In the fifth round of that same draft, they selected Jake Arrieta from Texas Christian University, giving him what was, at the time, a record signing bonus for a fifth-round pick: $1.1 million. At one time a part of the heralded cavalry, ranked as the 67th-best prospect in MLB by Baseball America prior to the 2009 season, Arrieta now finds himself exiled to AAA Norfolk after a fourth year of failure at the MLB level. Has he finally worn out the patience of the Orioles?
While as long as Andy MacPhail was the GM, Arrieta and the other struggling once-bright pitching prospects seemed to have infinite chances, Dan Duquette is not wedded to those players in the same way. Duquette has stocked the AAA ranks with any veteran or once-promising starter from elsewhere.
At the end of last year, Arrieta found himself stuck in the bullpen in September while the surprising Miguel Gonzalez, and unlikely trade acquisition Joe Saunders, held down spots in the rotation that powered the Orioles into their first playoff berth in fifteen years.
This season, a solid spring training left Arrieta at the top of the heap of the fifth-starter candidates. He would be given the first chance to fail. With the opportunity to fail in front of him, one cannot say that Arrieta failed to seize it. In four starts, he never pitched more than five innings. Two walks became four, four walks became five, culminating in a four-inning, five-walk effort against the Dodgers on April 21, after which Arrieta was demoted to Norfolk.
Arrieta has stayed with the Tides, languishing as the likes of Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, and Freddy Garcia were shuffled through the Baltimore rotation. Garcia may stick. They had so little faith in Arrieta figuring anything out in AAA that they would rather throw Kevin Gausman straight from AA to the majors than give Arrieta another try.
At the age of 27, Arrieta is no longer a young man in baseball prospect years. If he were improving, we would say that he was still a pitcher in his prime, but he has never improved. He has done the opposite of improve: every year his ERA at the MLB level has gotten worse, going from a 4.66 in 100.1 IP in 2010 to a 6.20 ERA in 114.2 IP last season to a 6.63 in his four starts this season.
The common wisdom about Arrieta was that if he could just improve his strikeout rate and cut down his walk rate, he would be able to be more successful. A 2011 K/9 of 7.01 went to 8.56 in 2012, and his BB/9 was cut from 4.45 in 2011 to 2.75 in 2012. Yet his ERA still rose from an already-unacceptable level.
Was it bad luck? Opposing batters hit .320 on balls in play (BABIP), which is an outlier for pitchers generally, and he only stranded 57.3% of baserunners, which is also an outlier. Arrieta having bad luck is one explanation. Throwing hittable pitches is another, and losing his composure once men got on base is still another. One bad error, one lucky bloop hit, these things were not Arrieta's fault. The meltdown that seemed to inevitably follow it, that was always his fault.
Perhaps the quintessential Arrieta plate appearance starts out with an 0-2 count against a left-handed batter. He gets cute, bounces a curveball the batter does not swing at. A pitch near the zone is fouled off. Another curveball in the dirt. More fouls. He cannot get the guy to swing and miss. A fastball misses its target. More fouls. Then the last fastball goes straight down to the ankles and the batter trots to first base. Nobody can work an 0-2 walk like Jake Arrieta.
Left-handed batters are the struggle for Arrieta. He has never been able to adapt his arsenal to retire them. Though Arrieta was a ranked prospect for a time, he was never a sure thing. This is why it took until the fifth round for him to be drafted. Several other right-handed pitchers who've seen significant MLB action were taken in the first couple of rounds of that 2007 draft. I am not differentiating between prep pitchers and college pitchers. You can see what separates the successful ones from the others:
|Pitcher||RHB OPS||LHB OPS||Career ERA|
Arrieta is more successful than any of these guys in terms of keeping down the OPS of righty batters - but he's the worst against lefty batters out of all of them. Some of the ERA differences can be explained by park differences, as well: Parker's home ballpark is Oakland, Beavan's is Seattle. Meanwhile, Hunter has gone from Arlington to Camden Yards. Still: Parker and Zimmermann have smaller platoon gaps. They are the pitchers who have done well. This is probably not a coincidence.
The problem is even more pronounced when you break it down to home and away. Arrieta has faced lefty batters at Camden Yards 475 times. This is the slash line of those batters: .300/.384/.558. This is approximately equivalent to Mike Trout. Lefty batters against Arrieta in Baltimore have hit as well as the best player in the American League hit last season. They probably stole fewer bases than Trout once they reached, because of Wieters. There are no perfect comparisons, okay.
Whatever your opinion of the competence of the Orioles organization in recent years, you can be sure that the people who mattered in MacPhail's regime and who matter now in Duquette's were aware of the problem for Arrieta. If it were so easy to know the problem in order to fix it, they would have fixed Arrieta by now. Maybe he needed to learn another pitch; maybe command of his existing pitches is the root of his problem.
Maybe, like Hunter, he is destined for the bullpen. Duquette has not been shy about turning failed starters he inherited from the MacPhail years into relievers. Hunter and Brian Matusz have both thus far been success stories. Why not Arrieta? It is hard to trust a reliever who can't throw strikes: see Pedro Strop for why that is. As a starter, Arrieta has never managed to be able to throw strikes that are not hit hard.
Perhaps they still are trying to salvage Arrieta as a starter, and they know he needs more work at what they are having him work on. Perhaps the reason they haven't sent him into the bullpen is they just no longer care about him. He could be a spare part to be traded for someone else's spare part, or, if they are tired enough of him, non-tendered at year's end, or even designated for assignment sooner than that.
There's always someone out there willing to give another chance to an arm like Arrieta. They can convince themselves they have just the guy to teach Arrieta just the thing to have some value to the team.
Joe Jordan, the scouting director when Arrieta was drafted, might like another shot at one of his overslot signings now that he's director of player development in Philadelphia. Any struggling team may try to take a flier on a cheap player who, you never know, could just really need a change of scenery. Arrieta is not even arbitration-eligible yet, and given how his career has gone so far, will not be so expensive even as that process plays out. Stranger things have happened in the annals of baseball scrap heap acquisitions.
No one can ever know the mind of Duquette. I sometimes wonder if even Duquette knows the mind of Duquette. That said, the Orioles' treatment of Arrieta this year suggests that their patience may have finally run out with him.
Once a part of the cavalry, Arrieta rode into town with bugles blaring and fans cheering in all directions. He may not be long from a lonely ride out of town on a beaten down old horse, without a single friendly face to bid him farewell.