Not all no-hitters are thrown by No. 1 starting pitchers. And, not all No. 1 starting pitchers eventually throw no-hitters. This is a crucial truth — randomness always plays a significant part, so a no-hitter can be meaningful without being predictive. Yet, when a No. 1 starting pitcher does throw a no-hitter, it feels a little like validation. It feels a little like a stamp, cementing the reality that said pitcher is an ace. Jake Arrieta spun a no-hitter on Sunday, after having made several earlier attempts. Arrieta was a No. 1 before the weekend, but now he’s more widely recognized as part of the group. Doesn’t need to work that way, but that’s the way it works.
And it’s never a bad time for a reminder of just how good Arrieta has been. See, this can benefit everyone. People who didn’t know Arrieta before now know that he’s good. And people who did know Arrieta before might be less inclined to underrate him. This has gone on for some time. Since the start of last season, Arrieta is tied for second in baseball in ERA-. He ranks third in FIP-. He’s fourth in xFIP-. If you add all the numbers together, Arrieta ranks second in the resulting statistic, sandwiched by Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. No-hitters are always a little lucky, but the bigger point is Arrieta required less luck than most. Because, simply, he’s far better than most. It’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Arrieta struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth, picking up his 10th, 11th, and 12th strikeouts. That total was a season-high, as Arrieta didn’t want to leave anything to chance. This part is obligatory, though — by what margin did Arrieta preserve the no-hitter? Later in the game, this happened:
Easily could’ve been a single. Earlier in the game, this happened:
Also easily could’ve been a single. It was ruled an error at the time. The ESPN broadcast openly questioned it. After the game, some of the Dodgers questioned it. Even Arrieta himself acknowledged it could’ve been a hit, and such a judgment wouldn’t have been wrong. Beyond his own pitching, Arrieta’s no-hitter was most aided by a judgment call, and that’s a different sort of pitching-independent than we’re used to. It’s the same story as always: look how easily a no-hitter could’ve been spoiled!
But it wasn’t spoiled. And even if it had been spoiled, it would’ve changed nothing about the quality of Arrieta’s performance. The stellar pitcher threw a stellar game against a quality lineup, on the road, so this is a little different from when Chris Heston no-hit the Mets. That effort was no less of a no-hitter, but this one felt more like what a no-hitter is supposed to be.
As an interesting fun fact, according to PITCHf/x and Baseball Savant, Arrieta on Sunday threw a season-high 11 pitches middle-middle. That’s not where anyone ever wants to throw the baseball, so you don’t expect to see that after such a performance, but here’s another way to look at it: Arrieta grooved seven pitches the first time through the order. The rest of the way, he grooved just four. Three of those pitches down the middle came in one at-bat against Chase Utley, in the first. Three more came two batters later, against Andre Ethier in the second. That’s about when Arrieta stopped putting pitches there. It wasn’t a game-long issue.
In some ways, Arrieta’s game was symbolic. Most obviously, Arrieta is a great pitcher now, so a no-hitter is fitting. That’s the first level of it. But, for example, one thing people have pointed to in allowing for Arrieta’s breakthrough is a much-improved slider that sometimes resembles a cutter. Focusing in on that weapon, Arrieta on Sunday used it to miss 12 bats. That’s his highest career swinging-strike total on the pitch. It’s appropriate that Arrieta’s grand achievement would feature such a sub-achievement.
There’s another thing. Arrieta worked through 29 plate appearances. All but five of those were against left-handed hitters. Arrieta threw 93 pitches against lefties, and his previous high as a Cub was 81. Arrieta, you’ll recall, is very much right-handed. So, the Dodgers shoved a bunch of lefties in Arrieta’s face, and he didn’t have any problems with them. The big story of Arrieta’s career turnaround is polishing his delivery to be consistent, but his success is most visible when you consider what he’s done to left-handed bats.
He’s gotten better, of course, across the board. From 2010 – 2013, against righties, Arrieta allowed a .306 wOBA. The last two years, against righties, he’s allowed a .251 wOBA, equaling a drop of 55 points. He’s controlled righties better than almost anyone. That’s great! That’s made him more effective.
But, from 2010 – 2013, against lefties, Arrieta allowed a .360 wOBA. That ranked him in the 11th percentile. The last two years, against lefties, he’s allowed a .232 wOBA, equaling a drop of 128 points. It dwarfs the improvement against righties. Here are the best pitchers against lefties, since the start of 2014, with a minimum of 100 innings in the split:
- Jake Arrieta, .232 wOBA
- Johnny Cueto, .250
- Carlos Carrasco, .252
- Garrett Richards, .253
- Zack Greinke, .264
Obviously, most lefty pitchers won’t make this list, because lefty pitchers who kill lefties don’t get to face many lefties, but Arrieta has been phenomenal, standing out from this particular group. For the 11 months of baseball or so, Arrieta’s operated with a reverse split, and this year he’s getting lefties to put more balls on the ground, without sacrificing any strikeouts or walks. Few can do what he’s done. Few have done what he’s done. When Arrieta was a rookie, he allowed lefties to slug .505. This year, he’s allowed them an OPS of .470.
You can trace it all through. Arrieta became more consistent with his delivery. That consistency allowed him to be more consistent with his slider. It made the slider more dangerous, because the fastball was better. It made the slider more dangerous, because Arrieta could more easily add and subtract. A better slider made for a better pitch against left-handed batters, because a lot of the time the pitch looks like a hard cutter. These have been the general keys to Arrieta’s emergence. Sunday, everything was on display. The Dodgers lined up a bunch of lefty hitters, so Arrieta came at them with good command and a quality slider, and the Dodgers finished without a hit. Many of them struggled to put a ball in play.
Sometimes, a no-hitter stands as a symbol of baseball’s small-picture unpredictability. This one’s a symbol of baseball’s bigger-picture unpredictability. It wasn’t unpredictable that this version of Jake Arrieta would have such a game. It was unpredictable that the old version of Jake Arrieta would become this version of Jake Arrieta. For this version, a no-hitter made complete and utter sense. This version might just go on to throw another.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.