From the Pages of Vine Line: Jake Arrieta and the evolution of an ace
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The following can be found in the September issue of Vine Line.
Jake Arrieta has been in this position before. Call it being the ace of a pitching staff. Call it being an Opening Day starter. Call it being a team leader.
He was all that a few years ago with the Baltimore Orioles. And he’s all that again now with the Chicago Cubs.
A lot has happened in the intervening years, of course, including a trade from Baltimore to Chicago and some time in the minor leagues, as Arrieta attempted to add a little more polish and command to his outstanding pure stuff. It’s all led to a dramatic career renaissance that once again has Arrieta acting as the No. 1 starter on a big league pitching staff.
Circumstances dictated part of his ascendance, to be sure. The Cubs set off some big fireworks this year on the Fourth of July when they traded their top two arms, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, to the Oakland Athletics for three high-ceiling prospects.
But Arrieta’s performance had a lot to do with it too. Even if the Cubs had kept Samardzija and Hammel, it’s becoming clearer with every outing that Arrieta might still have been the ace.
The 28-year-old hurler began the season on the disabled list with a shoulder ailment that accompanied him to Spring Training. He returned to the active roster in early May and quickly showed he was not only healthy, but that he was also becoming everything the Cubs were hoping for when they acquired him from Baltimore last July.
“I don’t really think that the shoulder issue to start the year out has much to do with my change of expectations or things of that nature,” Arrieta said. “It’s satisfying to be at peace with a team that’s going through some changes and [to be] able to have success on a consistent basis. All those things are good. I just want to keep building off every positive, and even the negatives, because there are things that are hard to learn from successes. It’s the complete opposite with your failures.
“When Rory [McIlroy] won the [British] Open, he brought that up. The top-echelon guys of every sport, whatever it might be, they have that same type of mindset, and I think it’s a good one to have.”
The Cubs obtained the fifth-round draft choice out of Texas Christian University on July 2, 2013, along with reliever Pedro Strop, from the Orioles for pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher-infielder Steve Clevenger. In Baltimore, Arrieta was supposed to assume the ace mantle—he was even the O’s Opening Day starter in 2012—but, despite top-level stuff, he could never find the consistency to cement a spot in the major league rotation. Over parts of four AL East seasons, the hurler went 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) in 69 games, including 63 starts.
After the trade last season, Arrieta was assigned to Triple-A Iowa to sort things out, but when the Cubs needed another starter after dealing Matt Garza to Texas at the deadline, Arrieta got the call to Wrigley Field. He spent one more short stint at Iowa, but finished the season with the Cubs, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA in nine promising starts.
At the outset of the 2014 season, it looked like Arrieta would slot in nicely behind Samardzija, Hammel, Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson until the shoulder injury derailed his spring.
But when Arrieta finally did return to action, he did so with gusto, going 8-5 with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Included was some serious flirtation with a no-hitter at Boston’s Fenway Park on June 30, when he went 7.2 innings without giving up a hit and earned appreciative applause from the Red Sox faithful when he was lifted for a reliever.
In the start directly before that, Arrieta was perfect through six innings against the Reds at Wrigley Field.
So that run of success naturally raises the question of what has changed. While many athletes deflect those sorts of queries and stubbornly insist they’re not doing anything different, Arrieta addressed the subject in his typically candid manner.
“Almost all of it is beyond the physical aspects of this game,” he said. “It’s more of the mental preparation and just the rearranging of certain thoughts—what’s important and what’s not. A lot of self-reflecting continuing to come to fruition. Things that you need to reiterate with yourself, positive things, negative things, and [then using] those to your benefit.
“If you can find out how to do that, how to bounce back, how to keep things rolling in a positive direction, regardless of success or failure, that’s what it’s all about. I think I’m slowly starting to figure it out and continuing to learn every day.”
No one knows a pitcher quite like his pitching coach does. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio cited maturity as a big reason for Arrieta’s rapid progress—and he said it’s much more than just being a year older and wiser.
“I think it’s his routine,” Bosio said. “I think he’s found it. He understands what he’s got working for him on that day in his warm-up. As pitchers, we all tend to force the issue at times. But the awareness that he has—and I think that’s what we mean by the maturity as a pitcher moving forward—he knows what his weapons are. He’s able to read the hitters now.
“He made the statement to me that he feels stronger than he’s ever felt. To me, the biggest thing that really tells you in a nutshell [how someone is doing] is confidence—his confidence in all these things: how he feels, how his pitches are coming out, what he’s bringing every fifth day. He’s got an excellent workout in between his starts.”
At 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, with a blazing fastball, Arrieta is certainly a power pitcher, but not in the traditional sense. He features an interesting and somewhat mysterious repertoire. He has a 94-mph fastball, and a slow 79-mph curveball. But the pitch that’s really been turning heads—hitters’ heads in disbelief and Cubs’ heads in awe and admiration—has been referred to alternately as a slider-cutter or a cutter-slider. Nuance with various pitches comes from grip, finger pressure and the speed at which the pitch is thrown, but no one seems willing to definitively classify Arrieta’s out pitch.
According to the website FanGraphs, Arrieta has increased the use of his cutter from 6.1 percent to 28.6 percent and decreased the use of his fastball from 65.1 percent to 46.6 percent from last year to this year.
“He changes pitch to pitch,” Bosio said. “That’s the one thing that makes him so unpredictable as a power guy. One time, he’ll come with one pitch one speed, and it might be 83 or 84 (mph), and the next time he’ll throw it at 90 or 92. He keeps you guessing. The biggest thing with pitchers is we don’t want to be predictable. Being able to locate on both sides of the plate is pretty unpredictable when you’re able to change gears like that.”
For his part, Arrieta shrugs off all the fuss surrounding the mysterious pitch. He said it all goes back to that maturity and being able to confidently harness his stuff.
“I’ve always had it,” he said of the slider-cutter. “I’ve always shown it. I just never really showed command of it. I never showed enough command of my fastball to use that pitch in the situations where I can now use it comfortably in pretty much any count.
“I can change the break. I can change locations. I’m not perfect with it. I’m still working to become better with the pitch just as I am with all my other pitches. But it’s something I have a comfort level with. I’m able to trust it and let it go.”
It’s safe to say Arrieta is one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014 season—not only for the Cubs, but in all of baseball. Getting over the command issues and recovering from the Spring Training injury both contribute to that, but Arrieta also possesses supreme faith in his stuff, despite his previous failures in Baltimore.
“His stuff is playing very, very well,” said Cubs manager Rick Renteria. “I know he’s commanding the zone. His ball is showing a lot of life. He’s able to control the movement, basically where he wants it to be. I think those are things that are starting to come to him more comfortably just because of his experience.
“Every year, your hope is that a player is able to take away something good from failure, so to speak, but continue to grind out and learn and just basically execute, and that’s what he’s been doing.”
One person not entirely surprised by Arrieta’s newfound success is Strop, who has watched his teammate grow as a pitcher in two separate organizations.
“I just think he’s been more consistent with the strike zone, with his command, because stuff-wise, he always had good stuff,” Strop said. “He’s using more of his cutter now than before, and I think that’s been a huge key in the difference. I always thought he could be a No. 1 starter on any team because of the stuff he has. Sometimes he’ll come out for an outing unhittable. It was something that was obvious. You could see that he could be that kind of pitcher in the future. He can be a leader of this rotation and this team. He’s a great kid and a hard worker.”
So what’s different for Arrieta? For the second time, he is getting a chance to be the ace on an up-and-coming team, but this time, he believes he has the skills to turn that opportunity into a consistently winning hand.
“It’s a situation, it’s a position that I’ve become comfortable with,” he said. “I haven’t been in this situation in a couple of years, but I know what it feels like. I know what it means. I know the importance of it to my teammates, the other guys in this clubhouse, to be a leader by action and also by demonstrating the will to help your teammates get better on and off the field. Those are all important aspects of being a leader based on performance and by being a guy in the clubhouse guys can go to.”
Arrieta once again finds himself at the top of a major league rotation, and he has no plans to relinquish that spot any time soon.
—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald