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Jake Arrieta worth the (one more day) wait

4/7/2015

CHICAGO -- Usually, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is the type of player that will give a thoughtful, long interview. In other words, he’s not a man of few words. But after his last spring start, in a minor league game just a few days ago, he was asked if he would be disappointed if he didn’t throw for 200 innings this year.

“I will,” was his simple, two-word response.

You could see it in his eyes, he wasn’t kidding around. The Cubs have a pitcher that’s grown up in a short amount of time after coming over in a trade in the summer of 2013. After a breakout season last year there’s just one thing left for Arrieta, 29, to do: throw like that again but for 30-plus starts. He’s never made it to 200 innings since breaking into the league in 2010, reaching a career high of just 156 last season.

“The strides that he has made, the holes that he has filled, he has stepped up to pitch like a No. 1,” spring instructor and Arrieta mentor Rick Sutcliffe said recently. “Let’s see if he can do it again.”

Arrieta will have to wait one more day than scheduled to make his 2015 debut due to a rainout on Tuesday, but that’s nothing compared to last year when he didn’t make his first start until May 3. A sore shoulder late in the offseason forced the Cubs to hold him back -- over his objections. When he finally took the mound he was like a new man.

“There’s a lot of ways to be successful but all those ways incorporate a strong mindset,” Arrieta said. “Without that it becomes more difficult to attain your level of potential.”

As you can tell, Arrieta has embraced mastering the mental part of baseball. That, along with a healthier diet, has put him in a position to be dominant simply because his stuff is already there. It always has been. He can do things with a baseball that not many people on the planet can do.

“He’d have those spurts where you couldn’t touch him but then you’d hit that fourth or fifth inning and it would blow up,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon saw it firsthand managing in Tampa Bay while Arrieta was with Baltimore. He never got over the hump with the Orioles as his strikeout-to-walk ratio was never special except for 2012 when it was over 3 to 1, but that’s also when he gave up 122 hits in 112 innings producing a 6.20 ERA in 24 games. Arrieta just couldn’t put it all together. Then came the July 2013 trade to the Cubs. He finished the season in Chicago with a nice 3.66 ERA over nine starts while giving up just 34 hits in 51 innings.

Once he got on the mound last season the numbers took off, though the Cubs still played it careful by not allowing him to throw over 100 pitches until his sixth start. When Maddon mentions those spurts of unhittable stuff, Cubs fans know exactly what he means. Arrieta had five starts last season where he gave up two or fewer hits, while his strikeout-to-walk ratio skyrocketed to a career high 4.07 to 1. The jump from 2013 (1.54 to 1) to 2014's mark was the second biggest in baseball behind Phil Hughes. They were the only two pitchers to double their strikeout-to-walk ratio from one year to the next. You got the feeling that a no-hitter was/is within his reach every time Arrieta pitches. And according to ESPN Stats & Information he ranked seventh in the National League in strikeouts after finally making it to the mound in May. The opposition just doesn’t get many chances off him.

“I was always confident I could pitch like that,” Arrieta said. “I just needed to go through some things to get there.”

He finished the season with a 10-5 record and 2.53 ERA while taking over the No.1 starter’s role after Jeff Samardzija was traded. Now he’s ready for even more -- including that first 200-inning season.