The Cubs can’t pinpoint the root cause that led to this system-wide breakdown. It’s not just one element of the defending champs that can be isolated and fixed. Everything’s connected.
But the World Series formula — pitching and defense working in concert while a deep, explosive lineup eased the pressure on everyone — won’t be replicated without Jake Arrieta operating near peak efficiency.
This cut on Arrieta’s right thumb is another X-factor for a pitcher who — just like Kyle Hendricks — relies so much on feel and the ability to manipulate a baseball in different ways. For Arrieta, it can be traced back to a blister issue in spring training, which might explain some of his inconsistencies, from his unique, harder-to-maintain mechanics to the downtick in velocity that super-agent Scott Boras disputed in a free-agent year.
As much as manager Joe Maddon tries to deflect the health questions — reclassifying the tendinitis Hendricks has been feeling in his right hand as a “real injury” after a recent setback — it doesn’t mean the Cubs are in good shape just because they aren’t announcing dates for Tommy John surgeries and the National League Central is such a bad division.
“All I know is that Jake Arrieta was there when we needed him the most, when it meant the most,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “There were a lot of questions about Jake going down the stretch, remember, through August and September (last year). Welcome to being a major-league player. It’s not going to be perfect.”
Arrieta beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series is a source of optimism and will be part of the Boras Corp. binder this winter. But watching the 32-33 Cubs is becoming a daily reminder that there are no push-button starts to the season.
Players aren’t guaranteed to perform like robots, with Major League Baseball digging into Addison Russell’s personal life being the most jarring example of the unchartered waters the Cubs are in now. Even logical, well-meaning plans — like holding back pitchers in the Cactus League to preserve their arms after playing into November — have consequences. April almost became an extension of spring training for a rotation with a 4.66 ERA and 24 quality starts through 65 games.
Maybe PNC Park — the site of his 2015 wild-card masterpiece — will bring out the best in Arrieta during Saturday night’s start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Cubs can’t rely only on muscle memory and been-there, done-that confidence.
“Looking back, here’s a guy who’s had thumb issues going all the way back to spring training this year,” Bosio said. “When you can’t feel the ball, when you can’t command the ball because of a blister or a cut, you’re not on a regular program. I’m not one to cast blame. I’m more one to try to find out why.
“Now he’s got a cut in the same spot on the same thumb. This is what I mean about little things. Little things keep popping up. And with Jake, it’s just trying to get him on a regular throwing program. This is the second turn in a row now where he hasn’t been on a regular throwing program because he’s trying to heal a cut on really the most important part of his body.
“This is where he gains his feel. When you can’t feel the ball, how are you going to command the ball? So you can talk about this or that. To me, it really boils down to that.”
Arrieta has a 4.68 ERA that’s worse than the league average, though the Cubs clearly aren’t playing defense on the same historic level. He’s gone longer than six innings just once in 13 starts, but circumstances sometimes dictate that in the NL.
Arrieta’s groundball percentage (42.5) is almost 14 points lower than what it had been during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (79:23 through 73 innings) and track record of durability are certainly encouraging signs.
Arrieta’s already given up 11 home runs — that didn’t happen until Aug. 18 last year — at a time when MLB might shatter the single-season record for homers.
“You’re trying to find: ‘What am I supposed to do in between?’” Bosio said. “And then here comes a side (throwing session) where they don’t want you to pick the ball up, because the trainers want it to heal, and now you’re not getting your regular work in. You get on the mound and you (try to) find your release point.”
Bosio is a physical presence when he walks through the clubhouse or out to the mound. He has credibility and stature after throwing more than 1,700 innings in The Show and helping develop Arrieta and Hendricks into frontline starters. He uses common sense and one-liners to make his points.
Bosio is a realist who completely understands how hard this game is, from the physical demands to the emotional toll. Friday’s not-surprising news: World Series MVP Ben Zobrist going on the 10-day disabled list with a sore left wrist. The Cubs still began the day only 2.5 games out of first place.
“It’s been one of those seasons,” Bosio said, “where with injury guys can’t get in rhythm, whether they’re hitting, they’re pitching or they’re fielding. If I was going to assess our team – and assess our rotation, because it all goes hand in hand – that’s what I would point to. Luckily for us, this division right now is still up in the air. Nobody has jumped out.
“Let the race begin and may the best team win.”