With the Chicago Cubs starting their three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday night, second-guessing over former ace Jake Arrieta has gained momentum. Understandably, the conversation has picked up even more steam with his replacement, Yu Darvish, struggling and missing time.
You could argue that no two pitchers are more joined at the hip than Arrieta and Darvish. After an unprecedented offseason that mimicked a long staring contest, the Cubs eventually opted to let Arrieta walk and offer extra years and money to Darvish.
Arrieta, whose five-year stretch with Cubs included a World Series championship, memorable postseason starts and a Cy Young Award, has had a solid to start the year in Philadelphia. In 11 games, he’s racked up a 5-3 record and 2.66 ERA. While not the same dominant arm from years past, he’s displayed a bulldog mentality that’s helped him compete through 64 innings of work.
Meanwhile, Darvish hasn’t lived up to the hype of his big-money deal with the Cubs. Dealing with two separate DL stints and questions about his mental acumen, he’s tallied a 1-3 record and a dismal 4.95 ERA in just eight games and 40 innings. Darvish also has failed to make it out of the fourth inning in five starts. In comparison, Arrieta has gone five or more innings in eight starts.
Despite Darvish’s struggles, the decision to let Arrieta leave in the offseason still was the right one.
Both pitchers are roughly the same age, and each had noteworthy flaws heading into this season. Arrieta was trending downward in terms of average fastball velocity. According to Fangraphs, his fastball averaged around 94-95 mph from 2013-2016 but dipped to a 92.6 mph average in 2017. This year, he’s averaging just below 93 mph.
Arrieta’s issues with walks also are concerning. During the beginning of his career with the Baltimore Orioles, his walks per nine innings (BB/9) were routinely high. Under the guise of former Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, Arrieta finally got into a nice groove where he saw his BB/9 fall and strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) grow.
But since his masterful 2015 Cy Young season, he’s seen a spike in BB/9 and a slip in K/9, especially this season.
*Through 11 games this season
When you factor the drop in numbers with his age and contract demands at the time, opting not to re-sign Arrieta made sense. These reasons are probably why he and agent Scott Boras weren’t able to find another suitor until early March.
However, was signing Darvish the right move?
With his recent problems and the benefit of hindsight, it’s understandable why Cubs fans would exclaim, “Hell no!”
Coming into the season, there were concerns over his mental makeup, especially after a poor World Series performance. However, his oddly-timed DL stints and comments from catchers Willson Contreras and Chris Gimenez about his thin skin also give you pause.
Still, the signing made sense at the time. The Cubs needed an arm to rack up wins during the regular season and Darvish’s career sample size fit that need pretty well. When added to a staff including Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, he doesn’t need to be “the guy.” Those three could all work in high-leverage situations, relieving Darvish from the bulk of the pressure.
Even at 31, Darvish still has the array of pitches and high velocity needed to punch out batters. Unlike Arrieta, Darvish still averages just under 95 mph on his fastball and maintains a solid 11 K/9 that matches his career average.
Does that justify signing him to a six-year, $126 million deal? While he didn’t show signs of losing his stuff, that price tag seems hefty for someone who is not an ace.
Not to mention, the optics are even worse given who he’s replacing. No one doubts that Arrieta is battle-tested and there are plenty of instances where he’s shown the ability to battle through rough outings. And he’s signed to a deal for less years and lower lifetime value.
There’s still hope Darvish can salvage his season when he returns from the DL. But until he does, the second-guessers and naysayers have plenty of fodder. Questioning the Darvish signing is perfectly reasonable, but that doesn’t mean you MUST pine for Arrieta.