Let’s get one thing straight.
Jake Arrieta is going to get paid.
For starters, for the past four seasons Arrieta has been one of baseball’s best pitchers on one of baseball’s best teams. Without him, it can be argued that the Chicago Cubs would not have won the 2016 World Series.
Then there’s his agent. Scott Boras is the best agent in pro sports. His clients tend to command big salaries regardless of which team they sign with.
But is Jake Arrieta worth the $15.6 million salary he was given in 2017? Let’s look at what he did to earn that amount before we predict his value moving forward.
In 2015, Jake Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award. He won 22 games for the Cubs while throwing a career high 229 innings. He averaged 7 innings per start and had a WAR of 7.3. Some would argue that Zach Greinke could have won the Cy Young that year, as he beat out Arrieta in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and WAR, but that is a topic for another time. Was Jake Arrieta worthy of the Cy Young in 2015? Yes. It was the best season of his career by far. His salary in 2015 was $3.6 million.
2016 saw Arrieta earn a little over $10 million on a one-year deal. He won another 18 games for the Cubs while seeing his ERA jump from 1.77 to 3.10. The increase wasn’t a surprise as maintaining an ERA below 2 is very difficult. As shown by the screenshots below this paragraph, I nearly predicted his exact ERA for the 2016 season in October of 2015. I said he would have a 3.20 ERA which isn’t far off of his actual result. My reasoning was that he was coming off of a season that saw him throw 248.2 total innings including the postseason. His previous season high in innings pitched was 156.2. That’s a big jump for anyone to make. His innings per start fell to 6.2 and he threw the most wild pitches in the National League with 16. Checking out some advanced stats, his WAR fell to 3.8 and his HR/FB jumped from 7.8% to 11.1%.
Looking at the 2017 season the decline continued. After signing another one-year deal worth $15.6 million, Arrieta won 14 games, threw 168.1 innings (5.2 per start), had a WAR of 2.4. Again he led the NL with 14 wild pitches, saw his ERA move to 3.53, and his FIP rise to 4.16. Also concerning was his groundball percentage falling below 50% to 45.1%, evidence that he was having a hard time pitching low in the strike zone. Because of this, the BABIP against Arrieta rose to .279 from .241, and HR/FB jumped to 14.0%. The rise in BABIP, combined with GB% and HR/FB is a direct indicator that batters were making harder contact off of Arrieta. Line drives have a higher chance of falling for hits than fly balls, which in turn are more likely to be hits than ground balls.
It’s unreasonable to suggest that Jake Arrieta isn’t still a #2 starter on most teams. He has proven that he can win big games and is capable to dominating every time he takes the mound. It’s likely that he will pursue a 4+ year contract with an average annual value upwards of $20 million. The question now is how much is he worth? He’ll be 32 before Opening Day 2018, making a long-term deal both unlikely and risky for any teams pursuing him. He’s seen his numbers decline over the past two years, and Steamer is projecting a 4.20 ERA in 2018. That number may change depending on where he ends up, but that number is a far cry from his 2015 1.77 ERA.
Time waits for no man, and Jake Arrieta is no exception. If he leaves Chicago, the Cubs will receive a compensatory draft pick for their loss. Can Scott Boras convince teams to give his client a hefty payday, or will teams hold their ground and make the Arrieta corner lower their asking price? If I had to guess, I would estimate he will sign a 3-year deal worth $60 million with a National League team. The Dodgers, Cardinals, and Brewers have been mentioned as being interested. The Yankees will likely at least look into the former Cy Young winner. I will be surprised if he returns to the Cubs. We will see how that prediction pans out as the off-season progresses.