Jake Arrieta does pushups

Photo credit: By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Things are getting real in our Fantasy leagues. While it’s easy to profess your trust in certain players, if they haven’t been producing of late, it’s a tough dilemma to decide whether or not to start them. Setting lineups becomes a test of our resolve to stick by our player evaluation principles.

One player who should be starting in all formats right now is Hanley Ramirez, even though he isn’t always the easiest hitter to trust. If you need convincing or just want to relive the last four years of glorious inconsistency, check out the piece I wrote on Ramirez for Today’s Knuckleball. If there are players whose inconsistency makes you want to avoid them at all costs, even when things are going well, leave a comment or drop me a note on Twitter (@almelchiorBB). I would like to address more of these players, both here and at Today’s Knuckleball, in the coming weeks.

Another player who is creating difficult choices for Fantasy owners is Jake Arrieta. Because he is the reigning National League Cy Young winner, the current owner of a 2.91 ERA and  continues to have the occasional impressive start, it’s hard to leave him on your bench. Yet, because Arrieta has a 4.17 ERA over his last 14 starts with a K/BB ratio under 2.0, he’s a little scary to leave in your rotation.

It’s rare to be able to trust a pitcher who walks 4.0 batters every nine innings over a 14-start stretch, especially when he is only striking out only 7.3 per nine. It’s a good thing that Arrieta continues to excel at preventing hits on balls in play. Since coming to the Cubs in the middle of 2013, Arrieta has yet to post a BABIP rate above .277, and this season, that mark currently sits at .229. The lack of hits has allowed Arrieta to record a 1.16 WHIP over his last 14 starts, even though his strikeout and walk rates are subpar for a standard mixed league pitcher.

So Arrieta is still helping with WHIP, and owners can expect him to deliver wins, thanks to the Cubs being one of the majors’ best offenses. If recent history repeats itself, that’s all you may be able to get from Arrieta. Yet when I received this question via Twitter prior to Monday’s lineup lock, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a two-start pitcher over a one-start Arrieta.

Granted, part of my calculus involved having uncertainty over a just-activated Gerrit Cole, but I had a hard time conceiving of the situation where I would sit Arrieta. Though his current slump is approaching the three-month mark, Arrieta still deserves some benefit of the doubt for the work he has done over the last three years.

So what exactly has gone wrong for Arrieta during this stretch? His slump has coincided roughly with his de-emphasizing of his slider. He was already throwing it less often than he did in either 2014 or 2015, but through his first 14 starts, Arrieta threw the slider 20.3 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball. Since then, he has used it at a 15.0 percent rate.

Throwing a slider less often is typically hazardous to a pitcher’s whiff rate, and given that Arrieta has increased his sinker usage as a result, he has become less of a swing-and-miss pitcher. His 9 percent whiff rate over his last 14 starts is downright pedestrian, but it’s what you would expect from a pitcher with a very average strikeout rate. Since Arrieta has started using his slider more sparingly, he has had more problems throwing it for strikes. Up until his June 22 start, Arrieta had a 67 percent strikes-thrown rate on his slider, but since then, it’s been an alarmingly-low 60 percent.

It is tempting to pin Arrieta’s control issues on a change in release point (see below), but his struggles predated those changes. Also, he has not experienced the same control issues with his sinker, even though he has made similar changes to the release point of that pitch.

There are no signs to indicate that Arrieta will go back to using his slider more often or start throwing it for strikes more consistently. Keeping him in your rotation during the most critical time of the Fantasy season is strictly an act of faith. Then again, sticking with Chris Archer back in July when he had abysmal control all season long required an even greater degree of faith, and in the second half, he has looked like the 2015 version of himself. Archer represents just one case, but it’s a dramatic and very recent example of how great players typically settle back into a high level of performance, even after protracted struggles.

Maybe Arrieta turns things around just in time to help Fantasy owners, and maybe he doesn’t. It’s not an easy call this time of year, because you don’t want to lose because of a pitcher who has already shown you the warning signs. I’d rather make the error of trusting someone who has shown an elite level of skill over the vast majority of a three-year period.