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Was the Jake Arrieta signing bad for the Phillies?

It has been a frustratingly erratic season for one of last off-season’s big free agent signings.

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When the Phillies entered spring training this year, it seemed obvious to most that the team’s weakness was in the starting rotation.

You had Aaron Nola, who was coming off a solid 2017 season, as the top arm of the rotation, a top-20 pitcher in baseball, but after that, you had question marks up and down the rotation, with Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Ben Lively expected to make up the rest of the starting-five.

Many, myself included, called all off-season for the Phils to add another starter. Eventually, a couple weeks into spring training, the Phillies took advantage of a sloth-like free agent market and signed Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million deal, one that would pay him $30 million in 2018, $25 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020. There were also two team options that could push the deal to $135 million over five seasons.

With just a couple of starts left on his 2018 season, it’s fair to say Arrieta’s campaign has been erratic, a bit disappointing, and closer to that of a No. 4 starter than a true No. 2.

In 29 starts (164.2 innings), Arrieta has an ERA of 3.77. That’s a bit higher than last year’s 3.53, but not bad, and his 4.13 FIP is actually a touch lower than last season’s 4.16. His strikeout rate has dropped from 23.1% last year to 19.4% this year, but he’s increased his ground-ball rate big-time, from 45.1% in 2017 to 52.1% this year.

He also still throws pitches that do this on a semi-regular basis.

Perhaps the most impressive Arrieta number is his hard-hit rate, as calculated by Fangraphs, of 26.9%. Only three qualified starters, Zack Wheeler, his teammate Nola, and Chris Sale have allowed hard contact less frequently this season. Unfortunately, some of those peripherals have not translated into preventing runs.

In his start last night against the Mets, Arrieta went just five innings and gave up four runs on five hits with six strikeouts and one walk. The hope was that, down the stretch, Arrieta would be able to lock in his mechanics and go on a dominant run like he did in the second half last year, when he posted an ERA of 2.28 in 67 innings. But he hasn’t been able to replicate that kind of success here in 2018.

In his last seven outings dating back to August 12, Arrieta has a 6.03 ERA and a 4.97 FIP in 37.1 innings. He has drastically improved his strikeout rate over that stretch (25.5%), but he’s also allowing 1.93 home runs per nine (HR/9), way up from the scant 0.78 HR/9 he allowed in his first 22 starts this season.

This probably is not what the Phils were hoping to get when they signed Arrieta to his free agent deal, although one cannot say that the deal was a bust. He was likely signed, in part, to help mentor a very young staff, and it would be impossible to believe his presence hasn’t had a profound impact on Nola’s evolution into one of the five best starting pitchers in baseball as well as the improvements we’ve seen from Velasquez and Pivetta this year.

Arrieta has had stretches where’s he been outstanding. He started in April with a 3.49 ERA and put up a 0.90 ERA in May. After a 6.66 ERA in June, he bounced back with a 2.80 ERA in July, but has followed that up with an August in which he had a 4.50 ERA and a 5.71 ERA in September. He just hasn’t been able to find any consistency this season.

One of Arrieta’s biggest problems getting swings and misses in the zone. He’s allowed a 68.9% contact rate in the strike zone that is higher than last year’s 65.5% and significantly higher than in his prime seasons in Chicago when it typically hovered between 59.5% and 59.9%. He’s also generated less swings on pitches out of the zone this year, 28.6%, down from 29.0% last year and 31.3% in 2016.

Given the up-and-down nature of Arrieta’s season, it’s fair to wonder whether the team will want to upgrade this off-season and bring in a starting pitcher who may be a bit more stable and capable of being a true No. 2. There will be free agents from which to choose (Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels and Charlie Morton are all set to hit free agency), and Clayton Kershaw could be added to the mix if he decides to opt out of his contract with the Dodgers (although he probably won’t).

If the Phils decide to add another starter via free agency or trade, it’s also possible they could decide to move Arrieta this winter. After all, the structure of his deal means teams only have two years and $45 million in actual money ($50 million for luxury tax purposes) to pay on it, and there have been enough glimpses of effectiveness from him this season that a team might be willing to do that.

Of course, it’s more than likely Arrieta will be a part of the 2019 Phillies, even if he has struggled down the stretch and wasn’t able to deliver a much-needed big performance against New York last night. And once the season is over, we’ll all probably still be wondering to ourselves just what kind of season Arrieta has had here in 2018.