At age 27, Jake Arrieta was so wracked with self doubt about the direction of his career that he considered going into sales. Think about that. The Cubs could’ve missed out on the greatest hope for breaking their championship drought because he was busy pretending that talking up the Xerox X792D to OfficeMax middle managers was an acceptable substitute for striking out Mike Trout.
That’s the power of self doubt, and every athlete has to confront it to one degree or another. Arrieta, for his part, had to overcome a profoundly painful case of it at his nadir with the Baltimore Orioles. And because he was eventually able to prove to himself that it couldn’t defeat him, he also learned how to use the doubts of others to inspire his performance to heights that he then only dared to imagine.
In his Orioles days, being a struggling major league pitcher would have been bad enough. But there was one thing worse: being a struggling major league pitcher with a Twitter account. There are two characteristics about this platform that are not particularly healthy for public figures battling their demons:
1. Because of its format, Twitter requires user messages to be as concise as possible.
2. “You suck” is only seven characters long.
At the same time Arrieta was thinking of quitting baseball in 2013, Twitter exposed him to the anger of the Orioles fanbase. But it also provided the first glimpse as to how their doubts would eventually fuel him to greatness, when one user sent Arrieta this pointed critique: “you f***ing suck, go back to the minors.” Because the only things he hated more than Arrieta’s performance were rules about capitalization and punctuation. Arrieta’s response to the troll was both blunt and a little ominous:
“Agreed. Gotta be better. If we see each other in person, you should avoid me.”
First off, by saying “If we see each other in person, you should avoid me,” Arrieta was inadvertently writing the disclaimer that should accompany every single Curt Schilling tweet.
But more importantly, this also provided a glimpse into a characteristic that would eventually make Arrieta so special: disarming honesty about his own performance. In those first four words, there is no false machismo nor any attempts to lay blame for his performance on something other than himself. Only the simple admission of “Gotta be better.”
Chastened, the Twitter critic softened his stance on Arrieta’s apparent suckiness, replying: “nothing personal, but I think you’d be better as a long reliever.” And really, what says “nothing personal” better than greeting a stranger with “you f***ing suck?” This fan was such a perfect representation of Sports Twitter, his avatar should have been all of the eggs.
With his attacker chastened, Arrieta’s next reply was like his mound demeanor: cold, efficient, and utterly focused:
“I will be a dominant starter. Wait for it…”
Even during the times when he was going through terrible mental struggles, all it took to bring out the Jake Arrieta that we recognize today was the doubt of a random Twitter troll. This declaration shows that Arrieta’s steely drive and determination were always there. The question was if he could develop his pitching skillset enough to take advantage of those characteristics on the mound as well as he did on his phone.
And once Arrieta was traded to the Cubs, he made it clear that there were more prominent doubters he was looking to answer with his performance on the field. In this spring’s Sports Illustrated preview, Tom Verducci detailed the myriad ways in which the Orioles and ex-pitching coach Rick Adair tried to fundamentally alter Arrieta’s pitching identity: dropping his cutter, shifting his position on the mound, and completely revamping his stride to the plate.
I’ve never seen or heard of Rick Adair. But given what transpired, it’s impossible to imagine him as anything other than Bill Lumbergh in orange baseball pants telling Arrieta, “You know how you’ve been getting guys out at every level? Yeah, we’re gonna need you to stop that.”
This wasn’t just an anonymous Twitter voice doubting Arrieta. It was his coach and eventually his entire organization. That’s a tremendous burden to carry. But as Arrieta told Verducci, once he was freed from the Orioles and began working with Chris Bosio:
“I was able to not hold anything back or feel like I was judged. People had lost faith in me in Baltimore, and rightfully so. I knew that was not the guy I was. I was letting it out as hard as I could in a controlled way. I was across my body. I felt strong. I felt explosive.”
Reading that account, it’s easy to picture Arrieta channeling all of the doubt and frustration he’d absorbed during his time with the Orioles into making every single pitch in a Cubs uniform as dominant as it could be. Because those pitches were his way of telling Baltimore “This could be us. But you playin’ Steve Clevenger.”
And now that Arrieta routinely creates 60 feet 6 inches of hitters’ Hell on earth, it’s definitely not a good idea to stoke his competitive fire any more than he himself already has. Last fall, the Pirates found this out when one of their fans decided to Tweet smack in advance of the playoff with:
“Be ready for the sea of black #BlackOut #BUCN #crowdIsGoingToEatYoualive #walkTheplank.”
“Whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know it doesn’t matter.”
Good God. This is what The Undertaker’s music would sound like if it had lyrics.
As you might recall, the Pirates really didn’t like Jake when he was angry. As the quote about his transition from Baltimore indicates, Arrieta already has a great reason to obliterate any team’s lineup. If anyone else doubts his capabilities, that just gives him one more. This October, the NLCS MVP could be whoever reminds him that last year Mets fans were chanting “Overrated.”
Lead photo courtesy David Kohl—USA Today Sports.