The Slow Start of Baseball's Best Pitcher
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes it takes the right coaching to unlock potential.
By Libby Coleman
The first innings of an April game found Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta wild and erratic. He had trouble locating his sinker. He walked multiple batters.
But sometime in the sixth inning, the pitcher found his groove — and metamorphosed into the Beast that legions of Chicagoans know and love. “His command got better,” conceded manager Joe Maddon, which may be an understatement: Arrieta struck sluggers out looking and swinging, induced soft ground balls and lazy pop flies. By the end of the game it was a certified rout — 16-0 — and the first no-hitter of the MLB season. Jake Arrieta had spun out a whopping 119 pitches.
Start slow, bloom late. That’s Arrieta’s M.O., not just within games but throughout his career. Today the 30-year old is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound pitcher who looks like an intimidating Paul Bunyan. He stares down batters 60 feet 6 inches away from him before choosing one of five nasty pitches that can break down, toward or away from batters at varying velocities in the mid-90s, high-80s — and occasionally a devastatingly slow curve in the high-70s. His throwing arm is a massive, muscled thing connected to a body that generates power through violent torque. And he is arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball (sorry, Kershaw, Syndergaard). He ran away with the Cy Young award last season, and his stats the past two years are historic.
Few would have imagined such success when, in 2007, Arrieta was a fifth-round draft pick, or when he was playing ball at a no-name junior college. Heck, Arrieta wasn’t even the best pitcher in his high school league. But after a year at that junior college, Arrieta’s luck shifted. A scout from Texas Christian University, a feeder school, came to a game to check out another player — but the scout couldn’t help but notice Arrieta’s heat. In a matter of months, Arrieta was TCU’s Friday-night starter. His resilience stood out: “Even when things were going bad, he acted as if things were going good. Things never got to him,” recounts one of his former TCU coaches, Derek Matlock.
And he was fearless. Arrieta tried to compete with David Price, who’d soon become the No. 1 draft pick, according to another TCU coach, Jim Schlossnagle. As part of a workout, Price swung a huge medicine ball back and forth on the end of a metal chain; when it crashed against the cinder block wall it sounded “like a thunderstorm.” Ten minutes later, Schlossnagle heard the same cacophony: This time it was Arrieta, who’d never tried the exercise before, kicking up the storm.
But when he got the call to the big leagues, Arrieta proved a shaky starter. “This doesn’t bode well: Jake Arrieta is Baltimore’s Opening Day starter,” snarked one NBC sports headline. With an ERA above five, Arrieta lost his spot in the rotation and was demoted to the bullpen. He tried to make the best of it: “It’s going to allow me to get some of the thoughts and emotions out of my head,” he told reporters. Yet, any mental calm didn’t translate to results — and Arrieta later told Sports Illustrated that he struggled with the Orioles’ pitching coach.
Since the Orioles traded Arrieta to the Cubs, he’s played like a bona fide ace. In one 16-start stretch, he went 15-0, with two no-hitters and a 0.53 ERA. His transformation has been so incredible that some wonder whether he’s taking steroids. Arrieta says no way; if people want to know his real secret, he says, they should check out his Pilates routine.
Is it any surprise that the Beast has found fertile ground in Chicago? In many ways, the Cubs franchise has taken Arrieta’s path. For more than a century, the Cubs have failed to win a World Series — some fans truly believe the baseball gods have cursed their team. But this year, the Cubs have flourished; they’re now one of the league’s winningest teams. As it turns out, there are more than a few late bloomers on the late-blooming squad. Utility player Ben Zobrist is batting at .300 this year — but his career batting average is in the mid .200s. Typically a middling pitcher, 37-year-old starter John Lackey is this year averaging an ERA in the low threes.
Still, there have been flashes of weakness in Arrieta’s past two seasons. In the postseason, Arietta choked; 230 innings took an inevitable toll. The way Arietta pushes his body to the extreme — coupled with his age — raises the possibility that he’s bloomed too late and might not have too many years left. Most recently, Arrieta has struggled to go deep into games, but he’s not worried. He’s been here before. “It’s not his fault or the pitching coach. It just happens. You lose feel and regain it and you’re yourself again. He’s an insatiable workaholic. He’ll fix it,” manager Joe Maddon said in a previous interview.
Every five days is a fresh start after all, and there’s no clock in baseball.