Ask any baseball player, any athlete what the key to success is, and the odds are that the word “consistency” will come up.
Consistency has eluded the Cubs halfway through this follow-up campaign to last year’s curse-smashing World Series championship, an effect of consistency personally eluding many of the guys who fueled the 103-win regular season and the run to the title.
Jake Arrieta has perhaps been the most conspicuous of that group of underachievers, to borrow a word Kris Bryant used Friday. Arrieta has turned in good starts this season, but he’s rarely strung multiple ones together.
Saturday, Arrieta finished his first half with another so-so performance in a 4-2 Cubs loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He allowed four runs, only three of which were earned, and couldn’t make it out of the sixth inning after getting knocked around for three runs in that frame. Arrieta gave up six hits, walked two batters and hit two more.
“The team did a good job of getting the lead,” Arrieta said, referencing the back-to-back homers off the bats of Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber that put the Cubs in front of the Pirates by a 2-1 score. “I put up a zero in the top of the fifth. (Pirates starter Ivan) Nova did the same thing in the bottom of the fifth. And then the mindset is just to hold the lead, and it’s upsetting for me to not be able to do that in that situation. But that’s the way it worked out.”
That sixth inning featured a leadoff double to Josh Bell before Gregory Polanco absolutely smashed a two-run homer to center field. After Francisco Cervelli singled, Jordy Mercer doubled him home to cap the evening’s scoring.
“It unraveled so quickly. I think (Arrieta) missed the location pretty badly to Polanco,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He was doing well. I have no real explanation for how quickly it happened because I thought he was throwing the ball pretty well.”
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Saturday wasn’t exactly a glaring step backward, but Arrieta failed to carry over the momentum from what might’ve been his finest outing of the season, when he gave up just one hit in seven shutout innings against the Cincinnati Reds last Sunday.
It’s the latest example of Arrieta’s up-and-down 2017. Prior to the dazzling effort against the Reds was the seven-steal fiasco against the Washington Nationals that ended up costing Miguel Montero his spot on the roster. Prior to that, Arrieta was great in seven innings against the Miami Marlins. But in the two starts before that he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning.
A small yet emblematic snapshot of Arrieta’s first half, one Maddon called a “roller coaster” on Saturday night.
“Below average for me individually and honestly for the team,” Arrieta said when asked for an assessment of his first half. “It just took a while for me to get it going. I felt like I was battling with some mechanical adjustments throughout the first part of the season. A couple inflated outings that have kind of led to the numbers being what they are.
“That being said, for me now that the first half is over as far as starts go, I’m just going to reevaluate some things and really focus on what I need to get better at, especially for the team. The individual numbers are great, but if my numbers are what they are but we win the games I start, I’m still OK with that. That’s the key. Every starter wants to win the game for the team. Whether you give up no runs or you give up three or four runs, winning the ballgame is obviously the most important factor at the end of the day. So whatever the numbers are, it is what it is. But moving forward I’d really like to be more consistent with innings for the team, conserve our bullpen because we’re going to need those guys in August and September.”
Of course, Arrieta isn’t alone in this heretofore fruitless search for consistency. The whole team seems bitten by that bug, hence the constant hovering around .500 this season. Maddon makes the need for consistent starting pitching a daily talking point, necessitated not only by the performance of Arrieta but by those of Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and back-up plans Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler, as well.
Earlier this week, team president Theo Epstein said the solutions for the middling Cubs would be coming from inside the clubhouse not outside around the trade deadline. But you’d have to imagine that the front office will have starting-pitching solutions on its wish list even if it doesn’t end up making a blockbuster deal.
Maddon’s right in listing consistent starting pitching as the team’s greatest need. It’s been the most obvious difference from last season’s yearlong domination, and should it continue at this clip — from Arrieta, Hendricks, Lackey or whomever — then it’s possible the long-awaited turnaround never comes.
Arrieta obviously has his own high stakes, too. After a Cy Young Award in 2015 and another stellar season in 2016, he was expected to score a huge payday this winter. But in this contract year he’s failed to replicate the results that made him one of baseball’s best over the past two seasons. While that kind of monster contract could still be on the way even if this trend does continue — professional sports team aren't exactly famous for frugality — and while it might not be on Arrieta’s mind as he takes the mound, it’s still something that lingers over every start Arrieta makes.
We shall see what the second half has in store for the Cubs and Arrieta, in particular. Remember back to 2014, when Arrieta put up a 2.01 ERA in his final eight starts of the season. During his Cy Young campaign in 2015, he wasn’t even a National League All Star at midseason. And the Cubs as a team used a spectacular late-season surge to fly into the playoffs and all the way to the NL Championship Series in 2015.
These second-half turnarounds are possible. For the Cubs’ sake and for his own, Arrieta is hoping for one.