“I probably shouldn’t have gotten half an hour into this press conference without giving kudos to him for just an incredible, breakthrough season.” That was Theo Epstein, talking to the media the day after the Cubs had been eliminated by the New York Mets in the NLCS. He was referring to eventual Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, and before I dive into this piece, I feel like I should echo those comments after waiting over two months to get to this player profile.
Position: Right-handed Starting Pitcher
2015 Stats: 229 IP, 2.21 DRA, 1.77 ERA, 27.1 K%, 5.5 BB%, 7.4 WARP
Year in Review: Part of the reason I took so long to get to this is because I already wrote so much about Arrieta this year that I felt like I had little to add after so thoroughly covering every angle for over six months. But I guess that’s a little pompous of me. The fact is there are plenty of areas I didn’t hit on when it came to the brilliant season Arrieta delivered in 2015.
The things I did cover were Arrieta’s workout program, the no-hitter that brought him to a national audience, questions some had about his workload (more on that later), and so much more. But who am I kidding? If you’ve spent any time watching Arrieta pitch or seen how he is in the clubhouse and with his teammates, there’s always more to write about.
“He handled the breakthrough and the dominance with such class and in such a generous, inclusive manner, that I think it set the tone for the whole team,” Epstein shared after the season had ended. “After the no hitter, including all of his teammates. As he got all the attention down the stretch, deflecting it to the team as a whole. That set an amazing tone and we’re really thankful for that and of course for what he did on the mound as well. And this mindset of always trying to get better despite being at the top really rubbed off on everybody and will for the next couple years.”
I’ve talked about what a great group this team is and how it not only made my job easy to do, but also the end of the season a little harder to take. But perhaps I haven’t spent enough time sharing what a great guy Arrieta has proven to be. I won’t waste words on his brilliance on the mound. You saw it, you’ve read it all season long, and then you read it again when he earned his Cy Young. But what Epstein said above really does a great job of explaining just how selfless Arrieta really is.
His number one focus was always improving himself on the field, and even as he continued to do that, he never made it seem as if he did it all on his own. This is a man who has no shortage of confidence in himself, but he also knows what he accomplished wasn’t a solo act and continually gave credit to those around him.
There were so many things that stood out to me when it came to Arrieta off the field. How he spoke about wanting to get know his teammates and get close with them and their families always stuck out to me. When he told me how much it meant to him that his family was able to celebrate with him after his no-hitter in Los Angeles was touching as well. This is clearly a person who cherishes his time with his family and someone who values relationships with those he holds important in his life.
And there were many moments during our personal interactions that left me impressed with his character. How he once told me he was busy and couldn’t answer some questions I had, but would find me when he had enough time to chat, and then he actually followed through on that. I can’t truly explain how amazing of a feat that is. He wasn’t just blowing smoke up my rear to avoid some harmless questions, he wanted to make sure he finished his pre-game routine and then gave me the appropriate amount of time to properly and thoroughly answer my questions. How in that conversation he told me how for young kids, balance and hand-eye coordination are so much more important than the mechanics of how they throw. Focus on those things, he said, and the mechanics can become second nature. That conversation then transitioned into him sharing advice on how to get my kids to throw a baseball better at really young ages and little tricks to use with them.
Sure, these aren’t the type of things that you normally write columns about and they certainly don’t influence how I write about his performance in games, but they do matter to some degree. Arrieta was not only dominant on the mound, making his teammates’ jobs easier, but he also made my job and the jobs of all the other journalists covering him easier. I remember being asked by a 20-plus year veteran of this business what he thought I should talk to Arrieta about to get him to open up. I sort of chuckled and said to just bring up anything related to pitching and the piece will likely write itself. Later, he came back up to the press box and was nearly speechless with the material Arrieta had provided for him. This clubhouse vet, who has talked to hundreds more players than I have in my half-decade doing this, was as impressed with the big righty from Texas as I have been.
When the Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta two and a half years ago they didn’t just bring in a hidden gem of a pitcher, but quite the impressive human being as well. And while it’s my job to make sure everyone knows about the former, I want to make sure I don’t take up anymore web-space before acknowledging and sharing the latter as well.
Looking Ahead: Sigh. I can admit when I’m wrong. And while I knew it was a possibility, I stood by Joe Maddon’s decision to let Arrieta rack up innings late into the season and hoped that Maddon was right when he referred to his ace as a ‘different type of animal.’ And while we could quibble with exactly what Maddon could have done differently with Arrieta, the fact is, even the pitcher himself acknowledged he was gassed by the playoffs.
“My goals coming into this past season were to be able to withstand a 220-plus inning season and I felt like I did a pretty good job of doing that,” Arrieta said in an interview with Carmen and Jurko on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. “There’s some unknown when you creep into a range of 80 innings over what your career-high was. I was never concerned of injury, the only thing I did have some concern about was how I would be able to preserve my stuff all the way up to 250 innings. Frankly, I just got to a point where I was pretty much out of gas. I physically felt great, but I just didn’t have a lot left in the tank.”
Arrieta went on to say that he didn’t plan on doing anything differently with regards to his offseason workout. One of the most dedicated players in the game when it comes to his fitness, Arrieta still will continue to train hard and prepare his body in the same manner as he always has for the rigors of 200-plus innings.
So what does change? Well, as I said above, we could quibble with how Maddon used Arrieta towards the end of the regular season last September, but I’m not sure that’s what needed to be changed. Without actually skipping a start or two in the season’s final month (and I don’t believe that would have been wise, considering how important routine is to big-leaguers, particularly starting pitchers), Maddon was only going to knock a few innings from Arrieta’s ultimate total, hardly enough to completely change how he felt coming into the playoffs. No, this is a change that needs to be implemented from the start of the season. And perhaps it was heading into 2015, but by the mere necessity of needing Arrieta to go deeper into games to collect wins, the Cubs couldn’t stick to their desire to keep Arrieta on a shorter leash.
The early season saw Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez sidelined (with the latter never returning to his 2014 form) as well as the Cubs going through multiple relievers before finally finding the right mix of arms in a bullpen that looked very strong come September and into the postseason. Combine that with the fact that the fifth spot in the rotation rarely was able to eat innings, Kyle Hendricks struggling to go deep very often, and Jason Hammel having an abysmal second half, and it’s easy to see why Arrieta, whether Maddon wanted to or not, racked up a ton of innings and tired once the most important games came around.
The Cubs were middle of the pack when it came to starters innings pitched, but that load was carried heavily by Lester and Arrieta, with the latter accounting for 24.2 percent of the starter innings logged on his team, the highest such percentage in baseball. Arrieta needed to log all those innings because at various points in the season, 60 percent of the rotation couldn’t be counted on to go deep into the games. Maddon needed to ride the top of his rotation to ensure that his bullpen would be rested enough to be effective when called upon during the other three games that Lester and Arrieta wouldn’t be starting. There are two ways to remedy this issue: Find more relievers who can eat up quality innings when starters fail to go deep or add more starters who have proven they can rack up innings. The Cubs did both this offseason, meaning they should naturally be able to let off the gas with Arrieta throughout the 2016 season.
Whether there are effects from Arrieta tallying nearly 250 innings that last into this summer is still unknown, but there are a few ways this could play out. The two most common suggestions are that either the experience readies Arrieta’s body to take that type of beating again or the exhaustion from the high workload still lingers, particularly in the early part of the season. And perhaps Arrieta won’t be as impressive as he was in 2015, but high workload or not, that was never a likely scenario.
Innings will certainly be a talking point for Arrieta leading up to and during this season. However, in the above-linked radio interview, the Cubs ace spoke of how he plans to utilize his changeup more often in 2016 and make himself a better pitcher. Not only could that changeup change the headlines, but perhaps I spoke to soon when I said I was running out of things to write about when it came to Arrieta.
Lead photo courtesy of Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports