Cubs

How Jake Arrieta transformed himself into the Cubs ace

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How Jake Arrieta transformed himself into the Cubs ace

PITTSBURGH — Jake Arrieta had just thrown a no-hitter on national television when he walked into Dodger Stadium’s interview room wearing a gray striped onesie covered in moustaches.

Before beginning his press conference, Arrieta looked down at the open buttons and asked reporters: “Too much cleavage?”

The thing is, Arrieta had already bought his go-to pajamas while on a rehab assignment with Double-A Tennessee last year, long before Cubs manager Joe Maddon got hired, much less organized that dress-up stunt for the overnight flight home from Los Angeles.

“He definitely hears his own beat,” Maddon said.

No, Arrieta doesn’t seem at all stressed about the win-or-else National League wild-card game. Because in his mind, everything in his life has been leading up this moment, looking out from below his flat-brimmed hat and staring down the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

Arrieta has light-tower posture and the swagger of a Texas cowboy who grew up idolizing Nolan Ryan and his intimidating presence.

Arrieta has that mountain-man beard, those blue Birkenstock sandals he wears around the clubhouse and a fluency in organic food, animal proteins and the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Arrieta has the curiosity of a Silicon Valley engineer, searching out experts on Instagram and Twitter, studying kinetics and wanting to defy gravity.

[MORE CUBS: How the Cubs built a World Series contender]

The physics of it all baffles hitters — up and down, in and out, fast and faster — as they try to figure out a 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-hander who can drop a curveball, changeup or that slider/cutter hybrid in a deceptive crossfire motion.

Arrieta finished the regular season with 20 quality starts in a row, going 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA and transforming the Cubs into a 97-win team.

“He’s unbelievable,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “You get guys on base all the time say they’ve never seen anything like it.”

To get a better feel for finishing his delivery, Arrieta likes to hang upside down from monkey bars. At a time when a $9 billion industry can only guess which pitchers might break down, Arrieta has ideas about flexibility and conditioning, cruising through a career-high 229 innings (or almost 72 more than last season).

“Our bodies try and fight gravity,” Arrieta said. “That’s kind of what I try and work against. I try and put my body in positions that allow me to counteract gravity — and strengthen my joints by putting my body in positions that are unfamiliar.”

Whether or not Arrieta needs to find a spot for a Cy Young Award, he already has plans for the empty lot next to his offseason home in Austin, Texas, where he envisions a ladder, a set of parallel bars and monkey bars.

“The set-up that I’m going to build is basically something similar to what you see at a playground,” Arrieta said. “I try and train very minimally. I use some kettlebells. I use some bands. But I’m trying to get my training back to a really primal level.

“I like to train in a way that I can move and effect my body as a whole rather than focusing on one specific area. I try and train to where I can tax my entire body by doing one movement.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs]

The pop-culture reference felt a little dated, but Maddon wasn’t far off when he compared Arrieta to a “male Jane Fonda.”

When Brandon Finnegan, who came out of the same Texas Christian University baseball program, wanted to know what it takes at this level, he contacted Arrieta.

Finnegan pitched in the College World Series and the World Series last year before the Kansas City Royals traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in the Johnny Cueto deal.

Arrieta responded by sending selfie videos of different positions from the Pilates machine he set up inside the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon.

“He’s a workout freak,” Finnegan said.

That’s why super-agent Scott Boras looks ahead to the free-agent class after the 2017 season and compares Arrieta’s pitching odometer to another client — Max Scherzer — who got a seven-year, $210 million megadeal from the Washington Nationals last winter.

“You don’t have to tell Jake Arrieta what to do,” Boras said. “He’s looking for things to do to get better.”

[MORE CUBS: Jake Arrieta trolling Pirates fans is ‘all in good fun’]

What took so long? Arrieta couldn’t stick with the Baltimore Orioles, spending parts of the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons on the Triple-A level.

There was friction between Dan Duquette’s front office and Buck Showalter’s dugout and a cookie-cutter pitching philosophy that didn’t vibe with Arrieta.

But listening to Arrieta entertain just about any question and speak in full paragraphs, it’s easy to see how he could overthink everything.

“It’s purely confidence,” said Dave Martinez, Maddon’s bench coach with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays. “I remember sitting with Joe and saying: ‘Man, this guy’s got electric stuff.’ We knew he had it. And now he’s just confident. Every time he goes out there, you can see it in his eyes and his face.”

Addison Russell had a great view of Arrieta’s no-hitter from his shortstop position on Aug. 30 at Dodger Stadium, watching a pitcher totally dominate a $300 million team, striking out the side in the ninth inning.

“I check out the signs to see what he’s going to throw, so I can anticipate where the batter might hit it,” Russell said. “And he threw it there just about every single time.”

That Scott Feldman deal in the middle of the 2013 season will go down as a franchise-altering trade. But Arrieta needed the fresh start. It’s hard to see this happening at Camden Yards or without the influence of pitching coach Chris Bosio and Theo Epstein’s front office.

“It’s exhilarating to watch him out there pitching at such a high level knowing how hard he worked to get to this point,” Epstein said. “He always had a lot of natural ability. He’s not a guy who just woke up and was a 20-game (winner) in the major leagues.

“He really had to go through some tough times and work at his craft. He wakes up every day trying to figure out how to get better.

“That’s the kind of mindset we want in this organization.”

[MORE CUBS: Maddon, Hurdle love the drama of one-game playoff]

If Arrieta has experienced a mind/body breakthrough, he has also achieved a work/family balance at the age of 29.

Arrieta’s wife, Brittany, had grown up as an elite-level gymnast in Texas, training with Nastia Liukin, an Olympic champion, and understanding what it takes to thrive in a competitive environment.

For Brittany, Arrieta has a “B” tattooed onto his ring finger. He also has “Coop” tattooed onto his left wrist, a tribute to his four-year-old son, Cooper. Next up this offseason is something for Palmer, their daughter who will turn two on New Year’s Eve.

But first Arrieta plans to conquer the playoffs. He’s no longer the kid who would get rattled in the American League East, letting the game spin out of control with one big inning. He’s the one in total control now.

“It’s a nervous excitement,” Arrieta said. “It’s not anxiety. This is why I’ve prepared as hard and as rigorous as I have for the past however many years for this game. This is one of the moments that you think about when you’re training in the offseason in early December. You think about pitching in games like this.

“I’ve already processed it. I’ve already visualized the scenarios. So I feel like anything that’s thrown at me tomorrow — or really in any game — I’m ready to handle.

“This has been a long time coming to this moment. I’ve been waiting for it for a number of years. And I’m ready.”

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

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USA TODAY

Cubs still owning second place in the NL All-Star vote standings

One Cubs player is within shouting distance of starting at the 2018 MLB All-Star game. But this time around, as compared to last week, the vote deficit is a bit larger.

MLB updated its second round of All-Star ballots for the National League. Catcher Willson Contreras trails Giants catcher Buster Posey by 90,000 votes. The margin was only 22,000 votes at this time last week.

And for other Cubs players such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others, the margin is a little more substantial.

Rizzo is behind Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman by nearly 870,000 votes. Baez trails Braves second basemen Ozzie Albies by 148,000 votes.

Bryant trails Rockies third basemen Nolan Arenado by 447,000 votes. At shortstop, Addison Russell is in third place, trailing the Dansby Swanson of the Braves and Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

In the outfield, Jason Heyward moved up to the seventh spot with 447,359 votes, dropping Kyle Schwarber to eighth with 442,471 votes, and Ben Zobrist ranks ninth with 434,943 votes.

There will be another All-Star ballot update for the NL next Monday, and voting ends on July 5 at 11 p.m. Central.

 

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

Addison Russell may be polarizing, but he's also one of the Cubs' most important players

ST. LOUIS — Addison Russell is the most polarizing player on the 2018 Cubs.

Now that Jason Heyward has found his groove again at the plate, Ian Happ isn't striking out every other at-bat and Yu Darvish has spent the last month on the disabled list, it's Russell's cross to bear.

Mind you, Russell is still 24 and far from a finished product as a Major League Baseball player.

But he's had such an up-and-down run with the Cubs over the last year and a half, ever since the 2016 World Series. That includes an accusation of domestic violence last spring, though Russell denited it and MLB's investigation into the matter ended when his ex-wife declined to participate with the league.

This is the guy who collected 4 hits in the weekend series in St. Louis, including a pair of doubles, a homer and 2 walks. He's also hitting .333 with a .395 on-base percentage and .882 OPS in June.

But then again, this is also the same guy who had throwing issues in the sixth and eighth innings Sunday night (including not throwing to third base for the force out in the sixth inning) and struck out looking with runners on second and third and only one out Saturday night.

Russell currently boasts career best marks in walk rate, strikeout rate, batting average, on-base percentage, line drive rate and opposite field hit percentage. He's also sporting a 104 wRC+ (which measures runs created per plate appearance and takes into account league and park factors, with 100 being average), which is the best mark of his career.

All told, Russell is in the midst of his best offensive season. 

Then again, he still only has a .744 OPS and is on pace for just 7 homers and 38 RBI, down numbers for a guy who hit 21 bombs with 95 RBI as a 22-year-old in 2016.

Over the weekend in St. Louis, Russell said he feels good at the plate, both mentally and physically. He liked where his head was at and can feel the progression he's made as a hitter since last season.

With or without Javy Baez (who just took a 90 mph fastball off the elbow in Sunday night's game), Russell is one of the Cubs' most important players.

He's so integral to what the Cubs do on defense and currently ranks as the second-best defender in baseball with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Oakland's Matt Chapman.

Russell also has the power to completely change the landscape of a Cubs lineup that is still searching for consistency on a daily basis.

Right now, he's doing exactly what the Cubs want him to do at the plate: Walking more, striking out less and using the whole field.

"When he came in after that line drive down the right-field line [Friday], I gave him a high five twice," Joe Maddon said. "That's the whole thing with these young hitters that we have. As they learn the opposite field on a consistent basis, they'll be able to sustain high numbers. They'll also be able to sustain high walk rates.

"When you're doing that, you're giving yourself more time to make a decision. Ball inside that you're pulling, you have a longer swing to get to with less time to make up your mind. Ball away that you're gonna go the other way with, you have a shorter swing to get to it with more time to make a decision. 

"It's all part of the equation. As our guys learn the value of the middle and opposite field from a hitter's perspective, their numbers are going to continue to increase."

As it stands right now, Russell is a Gold Glove caliber shortstop with a .277 batting average and .351 on-base percentage. That's a pretty solid player, even with the low power.

With the way the Cubs' roster is currently constructed, Russell will play a huge part in whether or not the Cubs can win their second World Series in a three-year span.

But he will also have to continue to maneuver through the mental hurdle of seeing his name thrown about as part of trade rumors this summer (and possibly beyond). And he'll have to stay mentally checked in during every at-bat or play in the field.

Russell's main takeaway roughly 40 percent of the way through the 2018 campaign?

"That it's a long season," he said. "We had a really good run in 2015, '16 and '17 as well, but this year, I'm really taking my time.

"Patience is the real thing in the clubhouse — on the road, at home, doing my routine, knowing that it's all gonna work out over time."