I can’t seem to find it, but I know a year ago somewhere around this time I wrote a post, either here or at Cubs Den, that was trying to suss out if Jake Arrieta’s 2014 season was just going to be a flash in the pan or if it portended to more greatness (which it obviously did). In my research, basically I concluded that any pitcher that could put up a 5.5+ win season (as Arrieta would have done had he pitching April ’14), no matter how out of the blue it came, was the real deal and we could expect at least that much again. No pitcher had ever put that up and then faded into Bolivia, basically. While I didn’t expect Arrieta to have a generational season, I did expect him to be among the league’s best.
So after writing about whether or not the Cubs should extend Arrieta or not this winter or go into arbitration and then see where they are after 2016, I thought it might be useful to try and project where he might be going. Using other pitchers from the past is always admittedly somewhat dicey because every pitcher is different, but it’s one of the best tools we have.
Arrieta is in some good company in pitchers who didn’t have their first dominant season until age 28 (and we’ll define that as 5-WAR or 150 ERA+ and above). Some names since 1990 are Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Darryl Kile, Cory Kluber, and Cliff Lee. And all of these pitchers went on to be dominant for some years after.
You get a little scared comparing Arrieta to Big Unit, but the narrative is kind of the same. No one questioned the stuff or the potential, but it took both a trade and some years bouncing back and forth between majors and minors before they ever put it all together. Johnson’s first what-the-fuck season came when he was 29 in ’93 in Seattle, when he struck out 308 and then proceeded to put up nine more seasons of 5+WAR. Obviously, this is the high end of the scale.
While Curt Schlling got everyone’s attention by embarrassing his teammates while burying his head in a towel in the dugout as a rookie in the ’93 series, his real first dominant season didn’t come until he was 31 and still in Philly. He put up five more seasons of 5+ WAR and another of 4.5.
Kile wasn’t as effective as the others, but in the 4-win range and stayed there until he died at age 32.
Lee’s breakout season in Cleveland came in the season when he turned 30 in 2008. He went on to to put up five more years of 5+WAR before it all fell apart on him.
Kluber is obviously parallel with Arrieta and we’ll find out together.
That’s basically all I can find for pitchers in the past 25 years who didn’t really come out as a galactic force until they were 28 or 29, which is encouraging. Now, as a Scott Boras client it’s probably near impossible to get Arrieta to sign merely a five-year extension, which would seem on the safe end. Just from this list it’s not a leap to see Arrieta being highly effective until 35, and considering the physical condition he keeps himself in that only helps. Even if the Cubs had to go to six years, it feels like that at most that would be only a bad year or two at the very most. It also keeps it expiring at the same time as Lester to open up flexibility.
Just food for thought.