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Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta showing signs of improvement amidst struggles

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Aug 29, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 29, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta (49) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports /
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Chicago Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta hasn’t exactly inspired with his performance this season. He possesses the ability to dominate, but has struggled.

So far, this season has not gone according to plan for the Chicago Cubs. Especially coming off a World Series title – the team’s first in 108 years. No player on the team is feeling the pressure or getting talked about more than Jake Arrieta – and rightly so.

The talent to dominate opposing hitters is there every time he takes the ball. But, unlike in the past, he’s been much more inconsistent in the first nearly two months of the 2017 season.

If you read Twitter during or after his starts, you would be angry too. Many people are ready to trade or even release Arrieta. If you watch the games, you know why. It is hard to not be frustrated. Let me be clear: No one is more frustrated than the 2015 NL Cy Young winner.

But, what is the reason for the struggles? What is going on that is making Arrieta average and not dominant? The answers lie in the numbers.

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Terminal velocity

It is no secret that Arrieta’s velocity is down across-the-board this season. Sure, he still sits in the low 90’s, but when you rely on movement on your pitch, speed helps mask it. And, when you are talking decline, two mile-per-hour difference is huge. For Arrieta, the change is major.

Taking a look at his stellar 2015 season, the numbers are scary. Arrieta’s fastball averaged below 94 mph only five times, and three of those games were in the first four starts. His cutter averaged between 89 and 91 in all but two games. With the velocity difference and movement, the pitches were near-impossible to hit.

This season, the story is much different. In his first eight starts, the average speed for his heater has yet to reach 93 mph. This cutter is maintaining an 88 mph average, but the difference between the two pitches is minimal, making them hittable.

Add to this a changeup that also averages 87 mph, and you have too many pitches that appear the same. Hitters can track and wait a split-second longer. Advantage hitters.

We have contact

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Chicago Cubs /

Chicago Cubs

With the lack of variation in speed, opposing batters are teeing off on the Chicago Cubs’ ace. In the three games in which Arrieta took the loss (at Boston, at Colorado and at St Louis),  batters hit him hard. At Fenway, Red Sox batters made hard contact 50 percent of the time, and 37.5 percent was medium contact. Over half of all contact in the game was either a fly ball or line drive. Arrieta left his outing after just 4 2/3 innings, allowing 10 hits and five runs.

Furthermore, both the Red Sox and the Cardinals hit the ball to either center or the opposite field with great regularity. The Colorado Rockies my have pulled the ball 50 percent of the time, but their batting average for balls in play was .529.

It is certainly interesting to look at the numbers. While he is still throwing 65 percent of his pitches for strikes, he is walking almost three batters per game (less that the  four per game in 2016) and allowing 1.61 home runs per game. Those are exponentially higher than his Cy Young-winning season.

Why? Two reasons.

In 2015, Arrieta’s pitches made it though the strike zone with great regularity, according to Fansgraphs. Now, more balls are finding their way off the plate inside to right-handed batters, even missing below the zone.

These either wind up as walks or hard-hit balls. Secondly, his in-game release point consistency is off by 29 percent from his 2015 season. That means he is not finding the same arm-slot and releasing the ball in the same place nearly as often. You will see the pitching placement, release points, movement and velocity changes in the two linked pages.

Jake Arrieta pitching graphs, 2015

Jake Arrieta pitching graphs, 2017

Sign of improvement

There is hope. In Arrieta’s start on Sunday, his velocity was up to 94 mph on his fastball. He finished the game with a 1.00 WHIP and did not allow an earned run. The Chicago Cubs need that Jake Arrieta to turn things around in the rest of the reason. Getting run support helped, but finding a better release point will be the key to success this season.

Next: Chicago Cubs ride offense, Jake Arrieta to fourth win in last five games

And in a contract year, banking on major deal to be offered, he needs to prove he is worth it.

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