There was a time when Jake Arrieta was our little secret. People like you who watch the Cubs even when they’re heading for another lost season, and people like myself who cover this team for a living—many of us saw that something special was brewing with Arrieta last season. We were Arrieta hipsters. But on Sunday Night Baseball, Jake Arrieta went mainstream. Nine innings pitched, 12 strikeouts, just one walk, no runs, and, oh yeah, no hits.
Before I break down how Arrieta executed such a dominant performance (and, lest you doubt, it was dominant: no hitters certainly take a little luck, but even if you believe that Enrique Hernandez’s one-hop liner to Castro was a hit, that doesn’t change the fact that Arrieta was magnificent yet again on Sunday), let’s just take a few moments to remember how he got to this point. Anyone who’s reading this site knows that on July 2, 2013, Arrieta was acquired from the Orioles with Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. What you may not remember was that Arrieta had struggled so mightily with Baltimore that he was actually sent down to Triple-A earlier in the year and made five more starts with the Iowa Cubs before being brought up to the big-league squad on July 30th to start the second game of a double header. And even then, he hadn’t impressed the Cubs’ brass enough to carve out a permanent role in the rotation and didn’t start again until August 16th.
Arrieta was sporting a career 5.46 ERA, with a 17.5 percent strikeout rate and a rough 10.1 percent walk rate, when he first toed the rubber in a Cubs uniform. For a guy with his stuff, everyone expected more strikeouts, and the lack of command—exemplified by that awful walk rate—was an instant red flag. If there was one thing that gave Cubs fans confidence, it was the fact that the highly respected Jason McLeod went out of his way to say he was bullish on Arrieta’s future when they first acquired him, pointing to his prototypical starter’s build (6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and in splendid condition) and plus stuff. And, indeed, Arrieta’s 3.66 ERA in nine 2013 starts earned him some merited optimism. But there were still concerns. He had totaled just 51 2/3 innings that season (less than six innings per start), and both the strikeout (17.4 percent K rate) and walk (11.3 percent BB rate) issues still lingered.
The 2014 season began with more alarms, as shoulder issues sidelined Arrieta for the first month of the season. When he finally returned to the mound, Arrieta’s stuff looked great, but he was still struggling with high pitch counts, passing the 80-pitch mark and exiting after just four innings in two of his first three starts and failing to get through six in the third. Arrieta finally got into a bit of groove—the strikeouts were on the rise and the walk issues had become a thing of the past—and he eventually took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on June 30th in Boston.
Right before that, he’d admitted to me that his next goal was to start going deeper into games, with notching his first career complete game at the top of his to-do list. He crossed that goal off on his second-to-last start of the season with a 110-pitch, 13-strikeout, shutout gem of the Reds. He wrapped up the year with one final brilliant performance, a start that his ERA down to 2.53, and left him with a 27.2 percent K-rate, a 6.7 percent walk rate, and made enough of an impression to earn some down-ballot Cy Young votes.
Still, questions lingered for Arrieta as the 2015 season approached. Could he repeat his breakout 2014? Could he stay healthy all summer? And even if he could, would he be able to keep pace with a full season’s worth of innings? There were doubters, but Arrieta has quickly quieted them. The last month of dominance has catapulted him into the Cy Young race, and in case there were still a few who weren’t aware that Arrieta was now firmly among the league’s best arms, his dominance on a national stage on Sunday night erased any remaining uncertainty.
So, that’s the big picture. Now that we’ve seen that, let’s do this: how did Arrieta dominate the Dodgers last night?
|Pitch Statistics as coded by the Automatic MLBAM Gameday Algorithm|
|Pitch Type||Velo (Max)||H-Break||V-Break||Count||Strikes / %||Swings / %||Whiffs / %||BIP (No Out)||SNIPs / %||LWTS|
|FF (Four-seam Fastball)||95.1 (96.3)||-4.28||7.41||15||10 / 66.7%||8 / 53.3%||3 / 20.0%||3 (0)||7 / 58.3%||-0.86|
|SI (Sinker)||95.2 (97.2)||-6.57||5.58||44||32 / 72.7%||21 / 47.7%||4 / 9.1%||5 (0)||27 / 69.2%||-2.38|
|CH (Changeup)||90.0 (90.0)||-8.87||3.33||1||0 / 0.0%||0 / 0.0%||0 / 0.0%||0 (0)||0 / 0.0%||0.05|
|SL (Slider)||90.2 (93.1)||3.45||1.23||34||26 / 76.5%||23 / 67.6%||12 / 35.3%||5 (1)||21 / 72.4%||-2.48|
|CU (Curveball)||81.4 (83.0)||7.07||-8.99||22||12 / 54.5%||10 / 45.5%||2 / 9.1%||3 (0)||9 / 47.4%||-0.92|
Arrieta leaned on his nasty breaking pitches most of the evening, particularly his slider. He threw the pitch second-most (behind his sinker) on the night and tossed it for strikes more frequently than any of his other offerings (76.5 percent). The 12 whiffs he earned on the slider were far and away the most of any pitch and his 21 total on the night are just another clear representation of how impressive his stuff was. Of his 12 strikeouts, 11 were of the swinging variety; nine of those came on the slider.
Whether you want to call it a slider or a cutter (the pitch topped out at 93.1 mph on the night and consistently sits in the 88-92 range), it’s clear that the offering has become one of the big keys to Arrieta’s emergence. Perhaps of most importance is Arrieta’s uncanny ability to command the pitch, something former Cubs catcher John Baker pointed out on Twitter during the game.
His success is directly correlated to his feel. He is throwing it where he wants. https://t.co/Eutr2m9UXV
— John Baker (@manbearwolf) August 31, 2015
There are so many aspects to Arrieta’s success, and truly (since it’s the grand total of a bunch of different things that have gathered together to create his brilliance) it’s probably unfair to just point to one single thing and say that’s what makes him great. But that slider. Oh, that slider.
As Arrieta told me last summer:
“The change of plane is something that obviously yields more swings and misses,” Arrieta said of his slider. “What that depth allows you to do is miss a lot more barrels and get a lot more swings and misses. It’s just something that I’ve kind of toyed around with different grips and different ways to throw it and it’s just become very comfortable for me.”
As mentioned above, it’s the pitch Arrieta went to last night when he needed a strikeout the most, it’s the pitch that most often got him those strikeouts, and it’s the pitch he used—and succeeded with—in perhaps the two biggest at-bats of the game.
Hernandez had reached on an error with one out in the third and advanced to second—the only Dodger to get in scoring position on the evening—on a bunt by Alex Wood. Jimmy Rollins came up in what turned out to be the Dodgers’ only real scoring threat of the game. Arrieta quickly got ahead 0-2 with a called-strike slider and curveball that was fouled off. Rollins got back in the at-bat as he worked the counted even, but then Arrieta unleashed his bread and butter.Rollins had no chance, and showed as much with a particularly awkward swing on a pitch that ended up in the dirt by his back foot. He was retired, and with him so was the Dodgers’ lone scoring opportunity. Arrieta dipped in that well multiple more times in the game, and fittingly, it’s the pitch he used to cap the evening off. I think we’ll all remember the near-flexing celebration from Arrieta immediately after he recorded that final out, but take a look at Utley. He takes a glance back to see if Montero actually held the ball because yet again, Arrieta had induced a swing on a pitch that almost ended up in the dirt. Then he just walks away in quiet resignation; nobody was touching Arrieta on this night. That hard slider is just one of the many things that has helped turn Arrieta from failed prospect to the ace of a team charging towards their first playoff appearance in seven years.
But what else has helped contribute to this transformation?
There’s the mental ‘clarity’ he’s achieved:
“I have a lot more clarity now,” a clearly confident Arrieta shared. “I feel very self-aware of knowing where my body is in each phase of my delivery. I use the analogy of a golf swing a lot. There’s times in your swing where you get to the top of your backswing and you realize that your hips have already started to open up on you. At that point, what you have to do is quicken your upper body to catch up with your lower body. Same thing applies in a pitching delivery. If you feel your lower body has leaked out on you a little bit, what you have to do is quicken up your arm to catch up. And kind of vice versa. Those are things that have become easier for me now and just that self-awareness has made it a lot easier to recognize.”
Along with the mental toughness, Arrieta is dedicated to staying in peak physical shape. Those two things combine to help Arrieta repeat his mechanics without having to think too much about what he needs to do; it’s just become second nature—as it does for many great pitchers.
“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.”
Repeatable mechanics lead to elite command, and when you toss in multiple plus pitches, you get Jake Arrieta: Cy Young candidate.
Each reporter has different goals in a clubhouse. I’d say mine is to interact with players who not only excel at the sport, but are able to truly elucidate how it is they do what they do and communicate that to me in a way that the average fan can understand. My favorite part of my job is being able to share those thoughts with the reader. In my short time in this business, Arrieta is one of the few players I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with who is consistently able to accomplish that; he is never short of a quality, in-depth explanation of the seemingly unexplainable.
The above ‘clarity’ quote came from a story I wrote in June of 2014. It was one of the first of about a dozen long conversations I’ve had with Arrieta, and it’s the one that convinced me that this sudden breakout was for real. Others would wait for more evidence—and rightly so—but it was on that day that I became all-in on Jake Arrieta. The way he explained how his mental game had become inextricably connected to his physical game, and did so with such confidence—but not in a, “I’m trying hard to convince you” way, but more of a “this is just reality” way—is something that struck a chord with me. He told me during that conversation that he wanted to be more efficient, he wanted to go deeper, and not just stop there, but throw complete games and rest the bullpen. He accomplished the complete game later that season, and now in 2015 he’s taken his game to another level, culminating in Sunday’s no-hitter.
Followers of the Cubs should appreciate that they have the chance to watch the very beginning of what could be multiple great careers with the likes of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell. Being able to see these talents develop from infancy is rare, and Chicago has a trio to keep us company for at least the next half-dozen years. But don’t overlook what we’ve witnessed with Arrieta and just how special this story has become. When he arrived on the North Side, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone outside the Cubs organization—and if everyone was being honest, even within the organization—who believed he’d end up being this good. Oh, perhaps there were some who thought he could be a great reliever or even a solid back-end of the rotation piece. But an ace? An arm that would be competing for a Cy Young with the likes of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer? Two years ago, it would have been hard to envision such a future, and yet here we are.
Arrieta currently sports a sparkling 2.11 ERA, he’s striking out 26.8 percent of the batters he’s facing, walking just 6.2 percent, and inducing a career-high 53.7 percent groundball rate (just one way he’s achieving that higher efficiency he so desired a year ago) and he’s done it all in a career-high 183 innings pitched. But with the big righty from Texas, it’s not going to end there—not if you know Arrieta. This isn’t a man who is easily satisfied, not a man who will rest on his laurels. On Monday he’ll be back on the pilates machine, drinking his green juice, and doing whatever he needs to do to make sure that he remains at the peak of his sport. Joe Maddon has said all season that he believes there’s another level to Arrieta. We saw that on Sunday night, but if you’re satisfied, know this: there’s more to come.
Lead photo courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports