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Why Jake Arrieta is the key to the Phillies’ playoff chances in 2020

Arrieta’s performance this year may be the difference between a playoff berth and not.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It’s completely and totally unfair to lay an entire big league baseball team’s postseason chances at the feet of one person. That being said...

...Jake Arrieta is the key to the Phillies making the playoffs in 2020.

I know, I know, I did the unfair thing, and Arrieta’s teammates are obviously going to have a say in this, too. Rhys Hoskins has to bounce back, Aaron Nola has to be an ace, Zack Wheeler has to be productive, the bullpen has to come together, and a million other things have to go right for the Phils to have their first winning season since 2011.

But the biggest wild card is whether or not the Phillies get their money’s worth out of Arrieta, a guy who signed a 3-year, $75 million contract before the 2018 season and has largely disappointed since his arrival.

In that first year, he managed to start 31 games and logged 172.2 halfway decent innings, with a 3.96 ERA, a 4.26 FIP and an fWAR of 1.9. Last year was worse, as the right-hander battled bone spurs in his pitching elbow for much of the season and made made just 24 starts (135.2 innings) while putting up an unsightly 4.64 ERA, 4.89 FIP, and an fWAR of 1.1.

The guy was a gamer and tried to pitch his way through what had to be a painful injury until he was just too unproductive and too hurt to keep putting out there. You’ve got to give him credit for that. The team probably should have put him on the shelf a couple weeks before they did, and tried to ride him for a little longer than was wise.

When Arrieta was at the height of his powers, he missed a ton of bats, but since arriving in Philadelphia that hasn’t been the case. Instead, while his ground ball rate has been up these last two years, his hard-hit rate and home run-per-fly ball percentage are both way up, too.

Jake Arrieta Advanced Metrics

Year SwStr% K% BB% Hard% HR/FB %
Year SwStr% K% BB% Hard% HR/FB %
2014 10.4 27.2 6.7 24.6 4.5
2015 11.1 27.1 5.5 22.1 7.8
2016 10.5 23.9 9.6 25.2 11.1
2017 8.7 23.1 7.8 29.4 14
2018 7.8 19.1 7.9 27.7 14.3
2019 7.1 18.5 8.6 38 19.4

Some of these numbers are hard to explain because, even last year, Arrieta’s pitches still moved like crazy.

Arrieta simply doesn’t have the pinpoint location on a night-in, night-out basis that he used to, which is crucial for his ability to get guys to miss. His 8.6% walk rate was tied for 19th-highest out of 89 starting pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched last year and only nine of those pitchers had a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than his 2.16. But the worst number is that 7.2% swinging strike percentage, which was tied for the lowest among those 89 big league starters.

If Arrieta can keep the ball out of the air, an improved defense should help him. Didi Gregorius should be an improvement at shortstop, Jean Segura’s warts will be better concealed at second, and Scott Kingery proved to be an adequate, if unspectacular, third baseman. The Phils’ defense is not the disaster it was in 2018.

But will that be enough?

The Phillies have allocated No. 3-type starter money towards Arrieta and got a low-end No. 4/high-end No. 5 starter’s worth of production out of him in ‘19. It’s also fair to wonder how much the bone spurs had to do with his early season performance. He reportedly didn’t tell anyone about the issue until early July.

Through the end of June, Arrieta made 17 starts, had a 4.43 ERA, allowed opponents to post a .783 OPS against him and gave up 18 home runs in those starts. How long before he said anything was the elbow an issue? How much of his struggles were injury-related and how much were, well, just Jake?

We should get some answers in 2020. For his part, Arrieta says he is 100% healthy in camp this year, and that’s awesome. With Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler in the top two spots in the rotation and nothing but question marks after that, Arrieta earning his $25 million AAV salary this season could very well be the difference between another disappointing season and a postseason berth.