As we continue in our series of scoring the 2014 seasons of Cubs players, I drew the honor of grading Jake Arrieta.
He was one of the more pleasant surprises this season, and it actually started in a disappointing way. Many of us had high expectations for Arrieta, even if they were only based on hope. The bad news came quickly: shoulder discomfort meant the Cubs were going to be cautious with him.
He missed the first month of the season but made his debut on May 3rd, going 5 1/3 innings against the Cardinals without allowing a run. Arrieta proceeded to grow up before our very eyes, throwing his nasty slider/cutter combo pitch that many of us affectionately refer to as his “slutter.” An up-and-down May was followed by a take-off in June.
On June 13th, Arrieta entered a start against the Phillies in Philadelphia still as a relative unknown and made it into the 5th inning before having the no-hitter broken up by Dominic Brown. He finished with 7 shutout innings and 9 strikeouts, but that wouldn’t be all for the Arrieta no-no show. Two starts later, he went into the 7th against the Reds without allowing a hit. In his next start, he’d make it into the 8th against the Red Sox in Boston.
But those efforts would pale in comparison to his September 16th start against the Reds at Wrigley. Arrieta took a no-hitter into the 8th inning in that one, but had it broken up by a Brandon Phillips double that was just out of the reach of a diving Matt Szczur. He finished with a complete-game shutout, allowing 1 hit and 1 walk, while striking out 13.
That’s pretty much the best pitched game by a Cub since Kerry Wood K’d 20 Astros in 1998.
So what gives for Arrieta? Why the major difference this season? The 6’4” right-hander turned 28 just before the season started and sported a career 5.46 ERA in 358 innings when he arrived in the Scott Feldman deal in mid-2013. Even though he once held “top prospect” status with the Orioles, it’s very rare that guys figure it out as late as he did.
Lots of people like to claim that pitching coach Chris Bosio deserves the credit, and that’s partially correct. But it’s an organizational effort that starts with scouting and a philosophy and requires pitchers to buy in to what they’re being told. Arrieta drastically changed the way he pitched in 2014 versus previous seasons.
Check out this graph from Brooksbaseball.
Arrieta used his slutter more than any pitch this season, and that matters. He raised the whiff percentage on that pitch to 14.27%, as well as upping it to 18.27% on his curveball. Jake has nasty movement on those pitches and he threw them in a way that utilized that nastiness. The end result? Guys looking flat stupid at the plate.
Oh, that’s nasty.
As far as conversation regarding a player goes, I think Arrieta led the team in that category this year as well. Evan wrote about his complete dominance of the Reds in mid-September, AJ Walsh wrote about the new and improved Jake Arrieta in June, and I wrote something a few months ago where I made the case that Arrieta is good, not great.
I think some of what I wrote still matters, but my overall opinion has swayed a bit. If he can stay healthy, Arrieta is the kind of guy I feel comfortable running out in Game 1 or 2 of a playoff series.
He finished the season 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts. That ERA is the lowest of any Cubs starter (minimum 20 starts) since Mark Prior in 2003. Based on the fact that he started the season with the dreaded “shoulder discomfort,” missed a month of pitching, and was expected to be a 4th or 5th starter going forward, I think Jake Arrieta’s season was a huge success.
The stuff is obviously there, so the key for him will be staying healthy and keeping his mechanics set. If he can do that, he’s in the elite category of starting pitchers in baseball. Jake Arrieta earns an A for 2014 in my book.