It’s hard to not view Jake Arrieta in the extreme when he has transformed himself from a Triple-A pitcher thinking about quitting baseball into a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series hero.
This is someone who trolls fans on Twitter, poses naked for ESPN the Magazine and says whatever he wants to reporters. He is the centerpiece to one of the greatest trades in franchise history and a major part of one of the biggest stories ever in professional sports.
From the frustrating lows with the Baltimore Orioles to the dizzying highs as a Cub, the arc of this story doesn’t lend itself to measured responses or detached analysis.
After being must-see TV for the no-hitter possibilities, Arrieta Watch has morphed into referendums on what he will get paid as a free agent this winter. Sometimes, it feels like it’s either Max Scherzer money or one wrong mechanical tweak or velocity downtick away from falling over the cliff.
When in reality this game is way too hard to be understood as a daily stock chart. Just like the Cubs as a whole, Arrieta is too confident, polished and accomplished to be fluctuating that wildly.
Don’t look now, but the Cubs are on a five-game winning streak after Tuesday night’s 10-2 victory over the Miami Marlins at Wrigley Field, where Arrieta settled into the kind of groove needed to keep this momentum rolling.
“We haven’t necessarily changed our mindset or our outlook (just) based on our performance, negative or positive,” Arrieta said. “That’s probably the most important thing we can do — just stay even-keel — whether we’re going well or not.
“Put the night prior behind you and show up for the next game as prepared as possible and try and win that ballgame. That’s what we do so well when we’re winning games consistently.”
That feeling starts with a lights-out rotation. After giving up back-to-back walks, handing the Marlins a 1-0 lead and throwing 34 pitches in the first inning, Arrieta retired 16 hitters in a row and walked off the mound to a standing ovation in the seventh inning from the crowd of 34,082.
Coming home from an 0-for-6 West Coast trip, the Cubs (30-27) have swept the St. Louis Cardinals and surged into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“Any time we go through a period like (that), it kind of increases the sense of urgency a little bit,” Arrieta said. “Not necessarily pressing or trying to do more than we’re capable of, but just maybe trying to get locked in a little more, as far as our mental approach.
“It's just focusing exclusively on that and allowing our ability to show through without putting added pressure on ourselves. It’s really starting to pay off. This is a ballclub that’s capable of winning 10, 12 games at a time in a row.”
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Just like super-agent Scott Boras, manager Joe Maddon downplayed any issues with Arrieta’s velocity or the idea of a new reality for a pitcher who has been so good at freezing hitters, creating soft contact and minimizing damage.
“We’re not talking about a whole lot of difference,” Maddon said. “I still see a lot of 92-93s and 94s compared to like 93, 94, 95 maybe, so it’s still a significant velocity. It’s not like he’s just flipping it up there. I’ll take what they call the effective velocity by throwing it where he wants to throw it.
“If he’s able to command that thing where he wants to, those numbers absolutely play. Nobody even talks enough about it, but he’s got a great curveball and the cutter/slider was a big thing a couple years ago (and) I think the changeup’s developing yet, too.
“He’s got four above-average pitches. He just needs to command his fastball at any velocity and he will be very successful.”
It’s a good sign when Arrieta gets 10 groundball outs against the Marlins and continues to pile up the strikeouts (76) against the walks (20) this season. If this offense and defense plays up to its capabilities, it’s easy to picture Arrieta (6-4) winning around 15 games, as long as he maintains the durability that will be attractive on the open market.
Maddon pulled Arrieta after 100 pitches, when J.T. Realmuto tripled leading off the seventh inning. The Marlins managed just two hits and two runs against Arrieta, whose ERA has dropped almost a full run down to 4.46 since the middle of May.
There will be more peaks and more valleys in Arrieta’s walk year, which is off to a so-so start that will ultimately be defined by how the Cubs finish.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with Jake right now,” Maddon said. “I don’t think it’s mental. I don’t think it’s any of that stuff. I just think he’s slowly getting back to where he had been. I’m seeing an uptick.
“More than anything, I just think the fact that he’s trying to locate his fastball so much, that might be where you’re seeing a little bit of a drop, just by him trying to throw the ball where he wants to as opposed to just letting it rip.
“But he will, because he’s physically fine. He’s well. You watch his workouts — they’re still incredibly insane. As soon as that fastball starts going where he wants to, it’s really going to take off again.”