PITTSBURGH — Roughly 48 hours before Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter, Scott Boras sat in his Dodger Stadium luxury suite with a smirk on his face.
The super-agent raised both his hands in the air and made the “W” and “L” signs with his fingers, preparing to answer a question about what 20 wins could mean for the Cubs and Jake Arrieta.
“Hi, Mr. Owner, how are you?” Boras said. “Is your last name going to begin with ‘W’ or ‘L?’ Because those are the only two alphabets of owners. So, 20 wins, thank you very much.”
Arrieta will go for No. 20 on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park (6:05 p.m. on CSN), trying to reduce his team’s playoff magic number and make his case for the National League’s Cy Young Award.
The win means different things to different people, whether you are a card-carrying member of SABR — or someone who views the analytics crowd as helicopter heads — or a regular baseball fan who doesn’t get into random arguments with strangers on Twitter.
Or the game’s most powerful agent. As Boras launched into his sales pitch — Arrieta isn’t positioned to become a free agent until after the 2017 season — he noticed one of the two Chicago reporters sitting on the couch.
“You’re laughing at me because you understand I’ve been through these (before),” Boras said in late August. “These guys sit on the edge of their chair (when) you get down to it and the (difference between) 93 vs. 88 (wins).
“You’ve got to figure out a way to get your team to the win. So when people say to me an evaluation of value — it may not be the final metric — but I’m telling you: (For) the people that own these teams, it is the metric.”
In a long and winding conversation, Boras also stressed the idea of a pitching odometer. Arrieta is at 199 this season and will reach the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career.
Boras compared Arrieta to Max Scherzer, who reportedly turned down a six-year, $144 million offer to extend with the Detroit Tigers before getting a seven-year, $210 million megadeal from the Washington Nationals last winter.
Jon Lester, a three-time All-Star, won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, but even he didn’t have a 20-win season on his resume when the Cubs handed him a six-year, $155 million contract.
“All these pundits have said it’s a false read, this and that, whatever,” Boras said. “The reality of it is, if a guy goes to the ballpark (and) knows the 34 times that guy’s pitching, our team’s going to win 28 of ‘em — whether or not he gets the win — I want him on the mound.
“Because I got that — what? — I got that feeling. And I think that’s what Jake brings to the ballpark now. The Cubs all of a sudden are sitting there going: ‘Wow!’
“Now the components of Jake on the mound and this team and the management of the game — you put those three things together, and they’re turning (it around) and getting that done. That’s what owners look at.”
The Cubs don’t need to be in a rush and will probably prioritize allocating their resources toward another frontline pitcher, someone to go 1-2-3 with Arrieta and Lester in a potentially devastating playoff rotation. Boras likes to steer his clients onto the open market anyway.
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The Cubs are 21-8 in games started by Arrieta and have around a .539 winning percentage for the rest of this season.
“I go in and (say): ‘Hey, this guy hits the post,’” Boras said. “Boom! He’s an 80-percent guy. I don’t talk wins. I talk — what? — your team’s winning 80 percent of the time he hits the hill. Now everybody else is 52 percent. Why are you paying him money? Because he’s going to do that.
“Granted, there’s offense coordinated with that. There’s defense, so many factors that are unrelated to the starter. But it’s the general theme of the team and your fan base. Because you’re selling tickets.
“If your fan base knows that they’re going to come to the ballpark and watch him pitch — and they got a good chance to win — that’s a good day for a fan. I’m buying a ticket that day. Because I want to go watch my team win.”
Arrieta (1.99 ERA) and Boras both recognize Chicago is where all this natural talent finally clicked into place — to go along with intellectual curiosity and an obsession with physical fitness — after that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season.
Now 20 wins is within reach.
“It’s hard to do,” Arrieta said. “There’s so many variables that have to kind of add up for that to happen. You have to pitch well. Your team has to get you runs. You got to play good defense. You can’t have many off nights. It means that consistently you’re going out there and you’re doing things the right way.
“It speaks of consistency, of a competitive nature, not giving in regardless of the situation and trying to win for the team. That’s the mindset — and it’s worked out to where I’ve gotten quite a few of them.”