Chicago Cubs: Pitching

Arrieta's progress paying off for Cubs

June, 22, 2014
Jun 22
4:10
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- When the Chicago Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta from the Baltimore Orioles last July, he was seen as sort of a lottery ticket. A former top prospect who had failed to live up to his lofty billing, not many around baseball were very optimistic that the Cubs could extract much value from the powerful righty in a starting role.

While with the Orioles, Arrieta seemed to constantly be battling himself, suffering through mechanical issues that manifested in major command problems on the mound. It culminated in Arrieta walking over 10 percent of the batters he faced during his three-plus seasons with Baltimore. After posting a 15.3 percent walk rate in 23 2/3 innings with Baltimore last season, he was dealt to the Cubs and the number only slightly improved to 11.3 percent in his 51 2/3 innings with Chicago, still well above the league average of 8 percent.

[+] EnlargeJake Arrieta
Bob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsJake Arrieta is having a career year for the Cubs.
Despite the early struggles and doubters all around, Arrieta’s confidence in himself never wavered.

“The way I’m throwing now is the way I’ve always envisioned myself pitching at this level, even as a kid,” Arrieta said. “It’s not really of any surprise to me. I know I’ve surprised many, but it’s kind of the way I’ve expected to pitch for the past three or four years. Now I’ve been able to do that and I don’t take any of it for granted because I know how hard it is. I just intend to come to the yard every day with the intent to get better at at least one thing.”

In 50 innings this season, Arrieta has finally lived up to the hype that came with his top prospect status. The Texas native boasts a 1.98 ERA, a 26.7 percent strikeout rate, walking just 7.3 percent of the batters he’s faced while inducing groundballs at an impressive 53 percent rate. All, except the walk rate (he walked just 7.1 percent in 2012), would be career bests, with the groundball rate being well over his previous career-high of 45.7 percent from 2011.

Arrieta attributes his turnaround to improved consistency in his mechanics, which has led to better command of all his pitches, primarily his slider.

“Probably 90 percent of pitching for me as a starter is really getting in tune with your body and being able to repeat a delivery a hundred times in a row,” Arrieta said. “And really, that’s the goal. If you can repeat a delivery consistently, you’re gonna see the benefits of that in your command. That’s just something that’s carried over, along with my fastball command, is my slider command. Just being comfortable with throwing it in any count, 2-0, you’ll see me throw it in a lot of 3-2 counts. Because I’m confident that I can throw it in the zone, at the bottom of the zone and get guys to offer at it and either force weak contact or get swings and misses.”

The slider, which some call a cutter but catcher John Baker insists is a slider due its depth, has been a revelation of sorts for Arrieta. Arrieta says the pitch ranges in velocity from 85 to 92 mph depending on how hard he wants to throw it in each particular situation, but the break on it remains consistent regardless of speed.

In past seasons, Arrieta had relied more heavily on his sinker, using it 41.64 percent of the time (according to Brooks Baseball) in 2013, while his slider usage had hovered around the 15 percent mark in the previous four seasons. This year, Arrieta’s slider use has jumped to 23.26 percent, while the sinker has fallen to 29.62 percent. The rest of his repertoire (four-seam fastball, curve and change) has held pretty consistent to years past, but the mechanical changes have allowed him to increase the usage on his impressive slider.

“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 with different grips and different ways to throw it and it’s just become very comfortable for me.”

Arrieta says that his ability to finally understand his body and have a clearer idea of what he’s doing wrong and how to quickly correct it has allowed him to tap into his full potential.

“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 deliver. 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.”

Thus far Arrieta has performed at an All-Star caliber level for a team that appears to be ready to move its top starter. Arrieta’s emergence could help make the likely upcoming voids left by Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel a little easier for the Cubs to swallow.

Arrieta says that he’s always been very analytical with the game, picking the brains of teammates and the opposition, talking to both pitchers and hitters to get a better understanding of the game. However, in the past, while the interest was there, Arrieta believes he wasn’t able to really process the information and apply it in a productive manner.

“I wish it was something that clicked my first year in the big leagues,” Arrieta said. “Guys like (Tim Lincecum and (Clayton Kershaw that get to the big leagues right away, you don’t see that very often, those are some of the special ones. It’s a long process, sometimes longer than others with certain guys. But I feel like I’ve gotten to the point now where I can consume all the information and use it wisely, rather than having all the information and not being sure of when and where to apply these things. I think that has a lot to do with the maturation process, learning yourself and knowing what you are capable of doing.”

While Arrieta has done a great job of inducing ground balls this season, he’s also continued to rack up the strikeouts at a high rate. Personally, Arrieta doesn’t mind how he gets the outs, as long as they keep coming. He admits that his game plan is to work fast and get quick outs via grounders, but he points out that’s what most pitchers are trying to do, it’s the execution that’s sets the great ones apart from the rest of the pack.

Of late, Arrieta has been more economical with his pitches, tossing seven innings in each of his last two starts and throwing 100 and 105 pitches, respectively. Arrieta says his next goal is to make another step and start going nine strong innings.

“While strikeouts are great, the primary goal for me is to finish the game,” Arrieta said. “Every time I go out, I’d like to not even have a guy come out of the bullpen, I’d like to finish what I start. I haven’t been able to do that yet, but I feel like my game is getting to the point where I have the awareness in many situations to know that if my pitch count is, say, 70 and I’m in the sixth inning, I have to focus on early contact and try and get these guys to put the ball in play within three pitches. With that sort of mindset and good command, I feel like I’ll be able to (finish games) very soon.”

Accomplishing that goal would certainly make Arrieta all the more valuable. Regardless of what improvements Arrieta can make, if he can maintain this level of performance, or even a notch below, it appears the Cubs have continued their trend of moving a free agent-to-be for a piece of the future.

Rondon states his case on mound

May, 18, 2014
May 18
5:47
PM CT
Padilla By Doug Padilla
ESPNChicago.com
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Hector RondonDavid Banks/Getty ImagesHector Rondon earned his second straight save on Sunday.


CHICAGO -- The door is now wide open for Hector Rondon to prove he can be the Chicago Cubs' closer moving forward.

Firing nothing but fastballs that ranged from 96-98 mph, Rondon held off the Milwaukee Brewers for the second consecutive day to finish off a 4-2 victory Sunday.

He not only closed out victories on back-to-back days, he also improved to 5-for-5 on save opportunities this season.

“I put it in my mind to try to keep the game close, make good pitches and get guys out,” Rondon said. “That is what was on my mind.”

It seemed, though, that his mind would only get scrambled once the Brewers’ Ryan Braun led off the ninth inning with a double off the top of the ivy in right-center field. It brought the tying run to the plate with nobody out.

Instead of folding in a key moment, though, the right-hander only got better. He struck out cleanup hitter Jonathan Lucroy with a 97 mph fastball, got power-hitting Mark Reynolds to pop up to first base and closed things out by striking out Khris Davis on a 98 mph pitch.

Instead of getting him off his game, the Braun double had the opposite effect.

“Yeah, I think he was just thinking about getting after the next hitter,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “Once a guy gets on, I think those guys just settle down and try to make the pitches to the next guy. I don’t think it really rattled him and he always seems excited when he gets the last out.”

When the final strike was recorded, Rondon bent down in a crouch and pumped his right fist in a move that could end up becoming his trademark celebration if things continue this way.

While it might have looked like the Braun double got Rondon to put more energy into his outing, it might have been that the opposite was happening. Like a golfer who uses a controlled swing to hit it farther, Rondon actually improved with a more deliberate approach.

“I try to make a good pitch and be aggressive to the hitter and I think he got me on that pitch,” Rondon said. “I still was working on keeping the ball down and keep trying to help the team to win.”

It’s but a small sign that the often chaotic ninth inning could be a place that Rondon can shine.

The Cubs clearly will need to see more. After all, Sunday was only the team’s 11th save opportunity all season, tied with the Chicago White Sox for fewest in the major leagues. By contrast, the Brewers already have experienced 24 save situations, which leads baseball.

So does Rondon think he has shown enough to be the permanent closer even when Pedro Strop returns from his groin strain?

“Most of the time I will be ready for any situation,” Rondon said. “If they want to put me in the second or third inning, whatever situation I’ll take it. I say thank you to give that chance to me.”

Saying the right things won’t hurt his chances either.

Podcast: Jason Hammel on his wins

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:56
PM CT
By ESPNChicago.com
ESPNChicago.com
ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers talks with Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel about his win on Wednesday night over the Pittsburgh Pirates and about calling out Anthony Rizzo for forgetting he beat the Pirates last week as well.

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Arrieta goes three innings in rehab start

April, 6, 2014
Apr 6
12:39
PM CT
By Sahadev Sharma
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta made a successful rehab start on Saturday night for the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs' Double-A affiliate.

Arrieta tossed three innings of no-hit ball, striking out three and walking just one, but took the loss after allowing an unearned run on a wild pitch. Arrieta, who is working his way back from right shoulder tightness, threw just 42 pitches.

Arrieta is expected to make at least two more rehab starts before returning to the Cubs rotation, which possibly could happen as early as late April. Arrieta, who the Cubs acquired last July in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, started nine games for Chicago last season, posting a 3.66 ERA in his 51 2/3 innings of work.

Podcast: Carlos Villanueva

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
5:53
PM CT
By ESPNChicago.com
ESPNChicago.com
Carlos Villanueva
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers talks Wednesday with Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Villanueva about what he'll do on the Cubs only day off this spring coming up on Thursday and how the young players act behind closed doors.

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Samardzija happy with latest outing

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
5:32
PM CT
Crasnick By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com
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MESA, Ariz. -- Jeff Samardzija's second Cactus League outing began rather eventfully. He gave up a triple to Colorado's Charlie Blackmon to open the game, then took a Michael Cuddyer comebacker off the foot before chasing down the ball and making the play at first base to temporarily prevent a run from scoring.

"I'm pretty used to those comebacker, get-drilled kind of things,'' Samardzija said. "It happened a few times last year. It's part of pitching, I guess. Protect the vital organs, and hopefully (the ball) stops close to you so you can get the guy out, right?''

Samardzija, who is basically a lock to be Chicago's Opening Day starter, has concentrated on functionality over results this spring. According to FanGraphs, he threw his split-finger fastball 17.5 percent of the time in 2013. In Arizona, he's focused exclusively on his fastball, cutter and slider and has yet to throw the split.

Samardzija showed some good late movement with his sinking fastball against Cuddyer and Troy Tulowitzki. He said he felt strongest in the third inning, but began elevating some pitches and allowed two runs to the Rockies. He also smoked Cuddyer in the upper back with a fastball that got away from him.

"That was just a weird thing,'' Samardzija said. "All my pitches down and in to righties were so good all day. Hopefully he's OK. He's a tough dude, so I'm sure he'll be fine.''

Cubs claim RHP Marshall, lose Hendriks

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
2:23
PM CT
By Associated Press
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have claimed pitcher Brett Marshall off waivers from the New York Yankees, the Cubs announced Monday.

The Cubs also lost pitcher Liam Hendriks, who was claimed by the Baltimore Orioles. The Cubs had claimed Hendriks off waivers from the Minnesota Twins on Dec. 13.

Marshall, a 23-year-old right-hander, made his major league debut last season, making three relief appearances over two stints with the Yankees and allowing six earned runs in 12 innings. He spent most of last year with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, going 7-10 with a 5.13 ERA in 25 starts.

A sixth-round draft pick by the Yankees in 2008, Marshall is 36-32 with a 4.07 ERA in 115 minor league appearances and 113 starts.

Loss doesn't define Wood's season

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
5:24
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Finishing strong is undoubtedly the goal for any Chicago Cubs player, but in pitcher Travis Wood's case he’s already done enough to consider it a successful season.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wood
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesCubs starter Travis Wood gave up two homers in Monday's loss.
Even in losses -- like Monday 4-3 affair with the Miami Marlins -- there are positives. Wood threw a brutal pitch to the opposing pitcher, Henderson Alvarez, resulting in a three-run home run in the second inning. But that’s the last of the scoring the Marlins would see.

“You just can’t let it (affect you),” Wood said afterwards. “It’s early in the ball game. There’s a lot of game left. I just wanted to keep it close and give us a chance.”

You’ll excuse Wood if he lost focus for a moment. Every fifth day he’s battled for a mostly last-place team, establishing himself in the major leagues for the first time. It’s not lost on him that’s he been here the whole season which means he could reach the coveted 200 innings-pitched mark. That’s progress.

“It would be a big goal being in the big leagues from start to finish,” he said. “I think that’s every pitcher’s goal.”

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Russell heading towards 80?

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
3:09
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It’s an almost unheard of idea: Shutting down a reliever after he’s thrown too many pitches. It’s common practice for starters -- see Jeff Samardzija or Stephen Strasburg circa 2012. As for healthy relievers, no team would ever do it in a pennant race, but is it something to think about in September if a team has nothing to play for?

If it’s ever to be implemented then Chicago Cubs reliever James Russell might qualify. On Sunday he appeared in his 70th game of the season, becoming the fifth lefty Cub pitcher to record multiple 70-game seasons. Last year he appeared in 77 games.

“That’s what I get paid to do,” Russell said Monday morning. “It feels good to get noticed for doing my job to the best of my ability.”

Why is this important? There’s evidence that when a reliever reaches the 70-80 game plateau there can be negative effects. Former Cub Shawn Camp led the league with 80 last season, then was ineffective this year and eventually released with a 7.04 ERA.

By most accounts Russell has had a dip this year -- although one could argue it isn’t a major one. He’s already given up one more home run than all of last year but his batting average-against on balls in play is down. And while more inherited runners have scored this year, he’s inherited many more to get out and so his percentage is actually slightly down.

In any case, could another near 80-appearance year cause concern for 2014?

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Cubs' Samardzija finds his mojo

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
11:40
PM CT
Levine By Bruce Levine
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- This has not been the type of season Jeff Samardzija had initially mapped out for himself in his first chance to be the year-long go-to pitcher for the Chicago Cubs after getting shut down with two weeks to go in the 2012 campaign.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJeff Samardzija threw a complete game on Monday, his second of the season.
But Monday night may have been the turning point for him, as he threw his second complete game of the season and third of his career in a 11-1 blowout of the Washington Nationals.

Samardzija gave credit to catcher Dioner Navarro for making the game plan work to perfection.

“Navarro is unbelievable,” said Samardzija, who won his seventh game of the year. “What he does behind the plate, his presence is outstanding. He has a plan as to what he wants to do and that takes a load off of me and my mind. We were on the same page all day. He would take a second to let me relax before executing the next pitch.”

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Cubs sign pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
8:40
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs have signed Taiwanese pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng, the club announced on Monday.

Tseng, 18, pitched for Taiwan in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He gets a $1.625 million signing bonus.

The 6-1, 200 pound right-hander has four pitches including a slider, sinker and changeup to go along with his fastball. The signing had been rumored for several weeks but made official on Monday.

Cubs listened to offers for Jeff Samardzija

July, 31, 2013
7/31/13
7:23
PM CT
Levine By Bruce Levine
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Although trade conversations really didn't go anywhere, the Chicago Cubs did listen to offers for starter Jeff Samardzija before the non-waiver deadline expired Wednesday.

In the real world of baseball business, it is incumbent upon top executives to listen to offers on any and all of their players. In the sensitive world of long-term contracts and player control, the issues can become a bit emotional for all parties involved.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarCubs GM Jed Hoyer says the club would like to sign pitcher Jeff Samardzija, above, to a long-term deal.
"I don't think players should be all that sensitive about it," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "If you are a seller, it is almost impossible for your name not to be mentioned in a deal. We never came close with any deal for Samardzija and we are happy we have him. We hope he is here for a long time."

The Cubs began talking about the parameters of a long-term deal (three years, $27 million) with Samardzija's agent, Mark Rogers, last fall. The conversations were preliminary but substantive. Samardzija decided he was not ready to commit to a deal and asked the Cubs if contract talks could be tabled.

At this point, the Cubs would like to know for sure that they will have contract control of Samardzija for more than his two remaining years of arbitration. After 2015, he can become a free agent.

"It is a valid question to ask him," Hoyer said after the deadline had passed. "He is a confident guy for sure. Part of what makes him good is that he has a swagger and great confidence. You probably take that into the negotiating room and you probably don't always separate those two things. That is a better question for him than it is for us."

Samardzija, 28, has already made over $15 million, despite the fact he is still learning his craft. Samardzija says he knows he is still developing and wants to concentrate on getting to the next level of top starting pitchers. If he accomplishes that goal, he knows a long-term deal for three times the amount of what was being talked about last November will be proper market value for his services.

"It is something we would like to do it for sure," Hoyer said of working out a long-term deal. "We love having him on the team. He brings the right competitiveness to the club. I think he will keep getting better. We want to acquire a lot more pitchers like him. It is hard to rank it on a priority list, but it is very high on things we would like to get done."

Gregg prepared for trade deadline

July, 29, 2013
7/29/13
9:15
PM CT
Levine By Bruce Levine
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- With the trading deadline less than 48 hours away, veteran players like the Chicago Cubs' Kevin Gregg understand that a change of address may be coming soon. Gregg, who has been a lynchpin to the restructured Chicago bullpen, has been in this position before.

“This is not my first go-round of the trading deadline,” Gregg said. “Rumors swirl and front offices run all kinds of things. We as players can’t get involved in that. We have to worry about our jobs on the field and go from there.”

(Read full post)

Cubs pitching staff prepared for changes

July, 28, 2013
7/28/13
3:52
PM CT
By Kevin Lynch
Special to ESPNChicago.com
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Chicago Cubs' pitching situation could be undergoing an overhaul. Closer Kevin Gregg's contract expires at the end of the season, which automatically makes him tradeable according to president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.

Reliever Pedro Strop's fiery personality and splendid pitching during Saturday's 1-0 Cubs win over the Giants might make Gregg even more expendable. Strop got the win after loading the bases with no outs by making bad decisions to a pair of bunt hits. He then danced out of trouble, inducing two ground-ball outs before striking out the power-hitting Hunter Pence.

Strop was all about the fist pump after getting out of the inning unscathed.

"He has pitched at a high level at the end of the game," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said Sunday morning. "That power breaking ball, you can't substitute that kind of stuff."

(Read full post)

Edwin Jackson's win streak ends

July, 21, 2013
7/21/13
7:54
PM CT
Levine By Bruce Levine
ESPNChicago.com
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DENVER -- Just before the All Star break it appeared that Chicago Cubs starter Edwin Jackson had turned the corner on what was a bad first half of the season.

Sunday, the 29-year-old veteran pitched well enough to win his fourth straight outing, but a throwing error by rookie Junior Lake and continued problems by the offense turned the outing into his eleventh loss of the season.

The same old problems of not hitting with men in scoring position led to the first series loss by Chicago since July 2-4 in Oakland. The Cubs were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 12 men on the bases.

“We were probably lucky to win one game,” manager Dale Sveum said. “We scored three runs in each game and were 1-for-25 with men in scoring position.”

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SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Starlin Castro
BA HR RBI R
.284 13 64 53
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Rizzo 29
RBIA. Rizzo 69
RA. Rizzo 80
OPSA. Rizzo .881
WJ. Hammel 8
ERAT. Wood 4.91
SOJ. Arrieta 127