Jake Arrieta: King of Weak Contact

Ever since Voros McCracken revealed his DIPS theory, stating that pitchers had little control over the outcomes of batted balls, people have been looking for exceptions to the rules. The first ones identified were knuckleballers, who consistently and relisably post some of the lowest BABIPs of any pitchers during their careers. From there, it was found that flyball pitchers, especially ones who generate a lot of pop-ups, can also run relatively low BABIPs over long periods of time. And then there are guys like Bronson Arroyo, who don’t easily fit into a bucket of pitcher-types, but managed to suppress outs on balls in play for over a few thousand innings, showing that he had some ability to induce weak contact.

Often times, the guys who fit the mold of a FIP-beater are guys who wouldn’t be in the big leagues if they hadn’t figured out how to exploit this advantage. The list of guys that we have to write the “FIP is wrong about them” disclaimer currently includes the likes of Chris Young, Marco Estrada, Jered Weaver, Tyler Clippard, and Darren O’Day. You’ll notice that these guys all throw in the 80s, and in Weaver and Young’s case, the low-80s. The guys who don’t conform to the normal range of BABIP variance use their ability to generate weak contact to offset their lack of stuff. They can’t dominate the strike zone — O’Day is the exception to that point — so they get batters out by allowing the kinds of contact that their fielders can get to. I’m sure they’d rather just strike everyone out, but since they can’t do that, they’ve learned to succeed in another way.

But while Weaver and Estrada are still chugging along, soaking up innings and keeping their teams in the ballgame, there’s a new king of weak contact in Major League Baseball. And to make life unfair, he also happens to throw 95.

Of course, we’re talking about Jake Arrieta, who threw another no-hitter last night, this one coming just 14 starts after his first no-hitter, back on August 30th of last year. That one was more traditionally dominant, as he struck out 12 of the 29 batters he faced, and only asked the defense to contribute 17 outs to the cause. Last night, Arrieta struck out just six of the 29 batters he faced, and he issued four walks as well, making it more about hit avoidance than just overwhelming dominance of the strike zone. But in many ways, that’s a fitting way for Arrieta to get a no-hitter, because he’s somehow managed to combine elite control of the strike zone with best-in-class ability to generate weak contact.

Tony Blengino wrote about Arrieta’s batted ball profile last October, naming him the “NL Contact Manager of the Year”, so I’ll just quote the most relevant paragraph here.

How does Arrieta’s raw velocity allowed on each BIP type measure up with his NL peers? His average fly ball velocity allowed was 86.8 mph, over two standard deviations below the NL average, and second lowest among ERA qualifiers to Clayton Kershaw. His average liner velocity allowed was 89.6 mph, over two standard deviations below the NL average, and second lowest among ERA qualifiers to Francisco Liriano. His average grounder velocity allowed was 82.4 mph, over two standard deviations below the NL average, and lowest among ERA qualifiers. His overall BIP velocity allowed was 84.9 mph, over two standard deviations below the NL average, and tied for lowest among ERA qualifiers with Kershaw. Arrieta was the only 2015 ERA qualifier in either league to allow average velocities over two standard deviations below average across the board, in all BIP categories.

Arrieta doesn’t generate outs on balls in play in the manner of most other guys who beat FIP. He’s a groundball pitcher who doesn’t generate many infield flies. He throws hard, and doesn’t really feature a change-up, one of the pitches that most low-BABIP guys tend to have as one of their best offerings. Instead, he just doesn’t get barreled up on pretty much any type of batted ball. He generates weak grounders, weak liners, and weak fly balls, and thus, everything put in play against him is just easier to catch than a normal ball in play. And that’s why Arrieta just doesn’t give up hits.

Lowest BABIPs Since 2014
1 Jake Arrieta 416.2 6% 27% 54% 7% 79% 0.251 52 61 70
2 Johnny Cueto 484.0 6% 23% 44% 10% 78% 0.263 73 86 91
3 R.A. Dickey 450.2 8% 17% 42% 10% 72% 0.265 99 110 112
4 Sonny Gray 446.1 8% 20% 55% 9% 76% 0.267 76 90 92
5 Felix Hernandez 455.2 6% 25% 57% 12% 78% 0.270 72 81 75

Among the pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since the start of 2014, no one is even remotely close to Arrieta in BABIP allowed. If we lowered the bar to 300 innings, we’d find Young (.233) and Estrada (.241) above him, but those guys are advantaged by their decreased workloads; they get to pitch to a larger percentage of batters they’ve only faced once or twice per game. Since 2014, Arrieta has faced 445 batters hitting against him the third time through the order, compared to just 320 for Estrada and 264 for Young. By pitching deep into games, Arrieta is actually hiding some of his weak-contact skills. Again, since the start of 2014.

BABIP by Times Through The Order
Arrieta BABIP
1st PA 0.217
2nd PA 0.266
3rd PA 0.288

At the beginning of a game, Arrieta is basically unhittable. His .217 BABIP allowed the first time through the order is best in baseball by a good margin; Shelby Miller is second at .228, Jered Weaver third at .235, and Estrada comes in fourth at .241. Because he goes deep enough in games to let batters adjust to him — as much as they can, anyway — he won’t always end up as the guy with the lowest BABIP allowed in baseball, but realistically, no other starter is generating weak contact like Arrieta right now.

That he also runs excellent strikeout rates and doesn’t walk anyone makes Arrieta an unquestioned ace. With all due respect to my friend colleague Jeff Sullivan, if we’re going to wonder if there’s a pitcher challenging Clayton Kershaw for the title of best pitcher alive, it’s the guy who just threw another no-hitter last night. Arrieta has somehow mixed the strike zone dominance of a traditional ace with the weak-contact skills of a knuckleballer, and when you put those two traits into one pitcher, I have no idea what opposing hitters are supposed to do.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Dick Monfort
8 years ago

Oops, wrong website.