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.
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.