Fantasy Baseball: Could Jake Arrieta Be a Value on Draft Day?

Arrieta was a fantasy letdown in 2016. Will the aura of disappointment make Arrieta a draft-day bargain in 2017?

How could a player pitching to a 3.10 ERA be considered a fantasy baseball bust?

If you're Chicago Cubs ace Jake Arrieta and your previous season saw you tally a Cy Young-winning 1.77 ERA, then perhaps the disappointment makes sense.

Experts and owners alike elevated Arrieta into the sub-Clayton Kershaw elite for 2016, and while his numbers were not exactly awful, he did not deliver on his lofty draft-day cost.

Does this aura of disappointment create a depressed market for Arrieta heading into 2017 drafts? Is it possible that the once-dominant ace could prove to be a value pick on draft day?

Was it All That Bad?

We've seen the final results, but do the advanced numbers paint just as dire a picture of Arrieta's downturn between 2015 and 2016?

They sure do.

Year Starts IP K/9 BB/9 HR/Fly Ball Ground Ball% Soft Contact% Med Contact% Hard Contact %
2015 33 229 9.28 1.86 7.80% 56.20% 22.80% 55.20% 22.10%
2016 31 197 8.67 3.47 11.10% 52.60% 22.90% 51.80% 25.20%

Between Arrieta's Cy Young campaign and the 2016 letdown, the differences are clear: homers and free passes were up, strikeouts and ground balls were down, and while the soft contact rate was stable, a dip in medium contact begat a spike in hard contact.

What are the reasons behind this decline? Check out Arrieta's pitch mix rates over the last two seasons.

Year Fastball % Sinker % Slider % Cutter % Change %
2015 15.70% 35.80% 28.90% 15.50% 4.20%
2016 20.80% 44.10% 18.00% 12.30% 4.70%

It's hard to ignore the significant decrease in slider and cutter use here. Eno Sarris wrote extensively for Fangraphs on how Arrieta's change in mechanics last season caused him to lose confidence in the slider in particular, inducing fewer whiffs and more hard contact. The difference was especially stark against lefties, whose isolated slugging on the slider jumped almost 100 points.

Still, Sarris seems somewhat heartened by the trends Arrieta displayed during the Cubs' playoff run -- his slider use was up 30%. While the swinging strikes weren't trending up, the command patterns in the playoffs were more consistent with his 2015 Cy Young season than with his disappointing 2016.

The Ace Tiers

There might be some hope that Arrieta can return, if not to his stellar Cy Young form, at least to the low-key ace production of his 2014 breakout.

The Steamer projections are not as confident, though, penciling Arrieta in for a 3.32 ERA that would be his worst season-long mark as a Cub, along with a 2.93 walks-per-nine rate that edges closer to his disappointing 2016 than to his stellar run in 2014-15.

Do these more sober projections, paired with the potential return to form that might be signaled by the increased slider use mean Arrieta will be a relative value on draft day?

Let's take a look at how Arrieta's Steamer outlook stacks up with those of the other pitchers in the early-round ace class, per FantasyPros consensus rankings.

Avg. Rank IP W ERA K/9 BB/9
Noah Syndergaard 25.3 201 13 3.04 10.57 2.29
Corey Kluber 25.8 215 15 3.35 9.41 2.24
Jake Arrieta 39.1 195 13 3.32 8.87 2.93
Jon Lester 41.4 207 14 3.34 8.99 2.42
David Price 46.5 208 15 3.46 8.66 1.97
Justin Verlander 48.3 208 14 3.57 9.22 2.51
Johnny Cueto 50.1 209 13 3.19 7.95 2.13

In terms of consensus ranking, experts clearly delineate what can be called the second, sub-Kershaw ace tier (which includes Corey Kluber and Noah Syndergaard, along with Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, and Chris Sale) and the third such tier, with Arrieta valued roughly alongside Jon Lester, David Price, Justin Verlander, and Johnny Cueto.

Arrieta and Lester are the clear headliners of this third tier in terms of cost, but only Lester's projections seem to belong.

In other words, for Arrieta, the prospect of a return to some semblance of ace form seems to be baked into the draft-day price.

Proceed With Caution

Taking Steamer as a baseline, we would need to see results in the higher end of Arrieta's range of outcomes (let's say a sub-3.00 ERA, nine-plus strikeouts per nine innings, a walk rate closer to 2.5) in order for an early third-round pick to return surplus value.

Otherwise, fantasy baseball owners will be paying for what they get -- which isn't exactly a bad thing this early in the draft. But what fantasy owners don't want is for an early-round pick to return negative value. A case could be made that this is a more distinct possibility for Arrieta than it is for any of these other veteran aces.

The recency of Arrieta's breakout makes it easy to forget that, technically speaking, he is approaching his post-peak years: he'll turn 31 before the season begins. As such, it's not hard to see 2016's velocity loss (part of Arrieta's slider problem, per Sarris) being a continued issue, especially with the Cubs' ace having tossed more than 400 innings over the past two seasons -- and that's not accounting for high-stress playoff work.

It also seems overly optimistic to expect a major positive walk rate regression, at least the kind that would distinguish Arrieta among the ace class in terms of WHIP. After all, Arrieta routinely walked four or more batters per nine before his 2014-15 breakout.

Ultimately, Arrieta seems to have a wider range of outcomes than most high-cost fantasy assets. Owners who played it safe with their other early picks could probably afford the gamble here, but risk-averse drafters might want to look elsewhere.