CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta is encouraged.
The down-and-away fastball is back in Phillies camp.
"There's an emphasis on that," he said. "It's refreshing to hear it promoted. It's been good in this game forever and it will continue to be good as long as the game of baseball is played."
Arrieta won a Cy Young Award and pitched two no-hitters by pitching down in the zone with two-way action on his pitches.
But too often in recent seasons, he has seen guys try to blow high four-seam fastballs by hitters. It works for some, the elite pitchers with exceptional power and location, but not for others.
"There was a weird transition there for like three or four years," Arrieta said. "As smart as a lot of these analytical teams are, they miss some of the most obvious signs of not needing to do that as often. Guys that don't have mid- to upper-90s fastballs, guys that don't have a 12-6 or an above-average curveball. Taking guys that throw sinkers and transitioning them to a guy that throws four-seamers up. It's happened all around baseball and it's foolish.
"Look, we're the guys out there on the mound with the ball. We know what our stuff is, we know how it works. We should know what works best. And if you don't, you need to figure it out. You shouldn't have to have somebody tell you that."
Baseball's information age has some players walking a tightrope. They want to absorb and employ all the data and technology they can, but sometimes it comes at the cost of Charlie Manuel's favorite line — know thyself.
"Young guys want to be coachable," Arrieta said. "I've been in similar situations. You believe that everybody has your best interests in mind but sometimes those things aren't meant for you. So, you have to be able to filter the information you are given, be realistic with yourself and self-evaluate."
The Phillies have a great example of a pitcher who walked the aforementioned tightrope last season. Zach Eflin, who got to the majors throwing a sinking fastball and pitching to early contact, was encouraged to power guys up in the zone with a four-seam fastball. In fairness to the Phillies' analytics team, former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young, he did have some success with the approach. But Eflin's effectiveness nose-dived by mid-season and he lost his spot in the rotation amid questions about durability that arose when Kapler revealed that the pitcher felt as if his legs were heavy.
Turns out, Eflin's legs might have just been tired from backing up third base because he returned to the rotation for the final five weeks of the season and pitched well. He made eight starts in that span and allowed two or fewer earned runs in five of them. The key to Eflin's success down the stretch was his decision to go back to the style of pitching that got him to the majors — sinkers, early contact, show the big fastball up occasionally.
Arrieta was thrilled to see Eflin have success late in the season, thrilled to see him pitching in a way that looked more natural to him.
"Absolutely," Arrieta said when asked if he advised Eflin to take control of his own style of pitching. "Absolutely."
He went on to say it's important that all players take control of their careers because "when they send you to Triple A, no one is going with you."
Arrieta added that he believed Eflin looked uncomfortable riding fastballs up in the zone "from Day 1."
"It was a period of time that was frustrating not only for him last year but for all of us watching it happen," Arrieta said. "Watching him go from a sinker-slider-cutter guy, occasional curveball-changeup, to up with a curveball underneath. Look, say you're a center in the NBA and they want you to be a point guard. It's probably not going to work out. It's not who you are. 'I can't (bleeping) dribble, I can't shoot three-pointers.' It's not going to work."
Arrieta stressed that Young, the former pitching coach who is now the Chicago Cubs bullpen coach, "did a lot of good here and there was a lot of great information that he gave the guys and it definitely wasn't just him." But Arrieta made it no secret that he doesn't like some of the trends he's seen in pitching the last few years, especially when it comes to pitching up in the zone for those who aren't comfortable with the practice or precise with their control.
"Look, you don't want a guy in the box to focus his eyes on a certain area, so you have to elevate at times to raise the eye level," Arrieta said. "I'm so sick of seeing guys go fastball up 0-0, fastball up 1-0, 0-1, 2-1. I'm (bleeping) sick of seeing it. And it doesn't work as well as people think it does. It just flat-out doesn't.
"There's a ton of damage up if you can't locate it."
That's why Arrieta is glad that new pitching coach Bryan Price is talking about the importance of the down-and-away fastball.
"The message has been sent that we're all going to be good at down and away," Arrieta said. "It's the hardest pitch to hit in the game and it always will be. I don't care what new guru comes along and tries to say that the evidence shows the cutter is the only pitch you throw. I'm not going to listen or believe any of it. Down and away is and will always be good."
Arrieta and Aaron Nola are pitchers who naturally work down in the zone. Now, Eflin is back in the fold and Arrieta thinks the soon-to-be-26-year-old right-hander is on the verge of big things.
"It's not an easy situation to deal with when you're being pulled in a couple of different directions and you're unsure what to do, but he's in a better place now," Arrieta said. "He's got beautiful mechanics. He's got really good command and action on everything. It's real stuff.
"This is nothing against (Zack) Wheeler or Nola because they're both great, but Eflin is just as good. There should be excitement about this guy."