Every once in a while, when Joe Maddon does his pregame session with the media, we’re joined by a guest: Jake Arrieta. And while chatting with Maddon is certainly an enlightening experience, Arrieta isn’t there to soak in more of his manager’s knowledge. No, Arrieta is working out on the Pilates machine—yes, the Cubs certainly are desperate for those clubhouse upgrades.
“Pilates has helped a lot, but not necessarily my stamina or endurance or even being in shape,” Arrieta said. “I’ve been in shape my entire life. (Pilates has) helped me understand my body even further because it requires a lot of balance in very compromising and uncomfortable positions. So being able to have good technique and good body control in pilates is something that requires a lot of mental strength. It’s no different than when I’m on the mound going through my delivery out there.”
That ability to go through his delivery on the mound and really repeat it on a consistent basis is one of the things that’s transformed Arrieta from a prospect who looked like he’d never pan out into one of the best arms not only on the Cubs, but in all of baseball. Arrieta has built on his breakout 2014 season, with a 2.38 ERA, 26.2 percent strikeout rate, and 6.5 percent walk rate this season. He sits 1 1/3 innings away from setting a new career high with approximately eight more starts to make.
But if you’ve spent any time around Arrieta, it’s clear that he invests a large amount of time working out. It’s not unusual to see Arrieta chatting with a reporter about his favorite Oatmega bars or walking into the clubhouse with his headphones in and his body drenched in sweat as he returns from a pregame workout. Just one look at the man and it’s clear that this is a person who is in impeccable shape and takes this part of his life very seriously. All this leads to Arrieta getting his body in the proper state to handle the rigors of a full season—and surely a deep playoff run. However, that’s not why Arrieta works out, it’s just something that’s been a part of his daily routine for a very long time.
“The desire to train at a high level, train appropriately, be healthy, and continue to evolve my nutrition and my diet started from an early age,” said the 29-year-old Arrieta. “There are a lot of reasons that started. At an early age I was conscious and aware of trying to be healthy and what that entailed—all the ins and outs of diet, strength and conditioning, and fitness; what it all means and how to combine it effectively. And I’ve tweaked things over the years, and obviously that plays directly into my job, and I’ve reaped a lot of the benefits from doing a lot of those things over the years and just trying to be my best is what it boils down to. By doing all those things and being as healthy as I can be, training as efficiently as I can are just factors that are going to allow me to remain durable, healthy throughout the season, and pitch at a high level.”
As Arrieta told me, being from Texas meant that even at the Pee Wee level, both football and baseball were taken seriously. His training and diet were of utmost importance to him back then, and unsurprisingly, his mindset hasn’t changed as he’s grown and taken baseball on as his profession.
“That’s just the outlook I have on everything in life, not just baseball or training,” said Arrieta, who, though thoughtful and engaging while in conversation, has the look of a very serious and focused individual at nearly all times. “But everything that I get into or everything that I’m passionate about I try to do to the best of my ability. Baseball and training are no different.”
That’s certainly wonderful for any Cubs fan to hear. And as Arrieta is quick to point out, all of this is done with no individual goals in mind, success on the field is just a result of dedication to fitness and diet. And it could all be very valuable as Arrieta heads to uncharted territory with his innings pitched, as he’s sure to surge past his previous career high on his way to 200 innings and beyond.
“I don’t really have individual goals,” Arrieta said. “Understanding game plans, scouting properly during the week to prepare for the next team, putting in good work in side sessions and refining things, working on things, continuing to get better at the finer details, holding runners, limiting free passes—those are my motivating factors. All that is a byproduct of putting in the time and trying to do my job to the best of my ability. I know that if I’m able to do all those things, the innings, the ERA, the strikeouts, all those things are going to work themselves out. So I think the most important thing for me is treating every start as a learning process. What did I do well and what would I like to do better? Try and learn from and use it in my next outing.”
So Arrieta doesn’t focus on individual goals, that’s certainly a very admirable quality and when you listen to Arrieta say it, you know it’s coming from a place of pure honestly. But it’s not just about nice stats right now, this is a pitcher who is third among NL starters with at least 100 innings in ERA (2.38), fifth in strikeouts, third in innings pitched, sixth in DRA (2.67), fourth in cFIP (79), fourth in DRA_PWARP (pitcher WARP based on DRA), fourth in fWAR, third in bWAR, and… I could go on, but you get the picture. Arrieta is ranked among the very best pitchers in the NL in most meaningful categories, putting him squarely in the middle of Cy Young talk. So perhaps individual numbers aren’t what he’s looking at—he’s a team guy, so that makes sense—but how about being voted the best pitcher in his league? It’s still an individual accomplishment, but one is pretty meaningful to most.
“It’s strange, because I’ve envisioned those things my entire career,” Arrieta told me. “Even when I struggled in Baltimore, I still knew that I could pitch like one of the best in the league, I’ve always had that mindset. So now, kind of being in that position, it’s not really of any surprise. It’s kind of what I’ve seen for myself and what I’ve expected for a long time. Figuring out how to get to that point is a little more difficult. But I’ve been able to do that and put myself in certain situations to have success on a consistent basis. It’s just the way things have worked out and I think that mindset is a positive one because it allows me to never feel satisfied. Because if I know that I’m capable of attaining certain things, then I expect to go out and do that. And I’ve figured out how to now.”
When the Cubs acquired Arrieta, I talked to multiple scouts around the league, not one outside the organization expressed much optimism that he could ever reach the lofty heights that were projected for him. One suggested that if the Cubs could figure out how to get him right, that the people involved would have jobs for life. But the fact is, that’s taking away credit from Arrieta for all the work he’s put in to find himself and finally fulfil the high expectations that were once laid at his feet. As he said, he’s figured out how to now. But what did he need to figure out to go him from the guy the Orioles trades for two months of Scott Feldman to the one who is now competing for a Cy Young?
“I needed to go back to being myself,” Arrieta said after a pause and a deep breath. “Not harping on mechanical adjustments during the game rather than how to attack a hitter and how to execute. Because once you toe the rubber, those are the only motivating factors you should have in competition. Because if you’re worried about where your front side is, are you getting balance, are you staying over the rubber, those are taking away from your ability to focus on just executing the pitch and going on to the next one. That’s really what the transition has been: understanding what I need to work on in between starts and then putting that behind me once the game comes around and just focus on hitting the target, executing pitches, dealing with the result—whatever it might be—and moving on to the next one.”
One of the key issues with Arrieta early in his career was his inconsistent mechanics, and it’s clear that Arrieta has almost entirely rectified those problems. But it’s interesting to learn that he’s not concerned with those mechanics in the middle of a game, because there have to be times when things get out of whack to start a game or in the middle of an inning. What does he do when something like that happens?
“So the mindset has really transitioned from mechanical adjustments to just trying to be as athletic as possible throughout my delivery and understanding where my body needs to be in certain points throughout my delivery,” Arrieta said. “I tell this to young kids, I’ll never preach mechanics, I’ll always try and preach an understanding of how our body moves and where our body needs to be in order to have success.”
This has been a recurring theme when I’ve spoken with Arrieta over the last two seasons: he’s keenly aware of how his body moves and where each part of his body is when he’s out on the mound. The way he explains it, it doesn’t appear to be an active process where he’s overtly concerned about these things; it’s almost as if it’s become second nature. His mind and body are in tune—something that may not have been the case a few years ago—and the fact that he’s so athletic and in such good shape allows his body to be where it needs to be so he can properly execute and repeat his delivery on a consistent basis. So while success almost always comes back to mechanics for a pitcher, for Arrieta, at least when he’s on the mound, it’s something that’s not on his mind.
“There’s not two pitchers who throw identically as far as mechanics are concerned,” Arrieta continued. “Everybody’s different, everybody has different things throughout their delivery that makes them unique. But the best ones all get to the same position at release on a consistent basis which allows them to command the ball and repeat their delivery 100 to 120 times per game. That’s what we have to figure out: how can we repeat our delivery as consistently as possible from start to finish. As a starter, a reliever, it’s all the same the thing. That’s kind of what’s helped the most mechanically is not even thinking about mechanics. It’s about moving my body in a fluid way, being comfortable, being smooth, having a good rhythm, and figuring out how to get to my power position at release, time after time after time. That’s kind of where I’m at.”
And where he’s at is a very good place. From 2010 to 2013, Arrieta posted a 10.2 percent walk rate, over the last two seasons that number has dropped significantly to a very impressive 6.6 percent. The walks stand out, but nearly every other number, up and down the line, has improved rather impressively for Arrieta after the rocky start to his career. It all stems from enhanced command that comes from improved mechanics that are all possible due to his elite athleticism and stout frame. All of this derives from a man who, even at a very young age, took getting his body in peak physical shape—through exercise and diet—very seriously. As he heads into what should be the best years of his career, all that hard work is finally starting to pay off in the form of success on the field. But that doesn’t mean the work is done, Arrieta’s not the type to be satisfied with just a taste of triumph, he’ll continue to work as hard as he can to become the best he can. After all, it’d be a shame to see that pilates machine go unused.
Lead photo courtesy of Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports