PITTSBURGH – To borrow from a business-school cliché, it took Jake Arrieta 27 years to become an overnight success.

The former top-100 prospect, the Olympian who dominated college and the minors, was a Major League flop. Arrieta had gotten chance after chance in Baltimore, and opponents flattened him to the tune of a 5.46 career ERA and more free passes than a 24 Hour Fitness.

“He always had electric stuff, and the ball always seemed to move,” says Ben Zobrist, who faced Arrieta while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays. “In Baltimore, we saw him as a guy that you just need to wait him out… we would score based on him walking people.”

What changed?

“His command is what’s taken the greatest leap forward, the ability to move it two different sides of the plate,” says Zobrist. “When he needs to throw a strike, he throws a strike. He couldn’t always do that.”

That’s the simple answer to what’s been a complex Arrieta Renaissance with the Chicago Cubs. He will tell you himself that it has taken a lot more.

Clashing With a Pitching Coach

“The stuff was the guy who could throw two no-hitters. That didn’t just come out of nowhere,” former Orioles teammate Zach Britton told Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan.

So why was young Jake Arrieta a failure in Baltimore and older Jake Arrieta a star in Chicago? Passan writes that Arrieta and other top O’s prospects “chafed under then-Baltimore pitching coach Rick Adair.”

Arrieta was ranked as highly as the 67th-best prospect in the game by Baseball America. He had a 1.85 ERA over 73 Triple-A innings in the last season before he got called to the bigs.

But when he reached the Majors, Passan writes, coach Adair took away his cut fastball and the two never developed a rapport.

I asked Arrieta, what would he tell other top pitching prospects as they move to the Majors?

“Just be in control of your career,” Arrieta said. “Do what’s best for you.”

Generic motivation? Or a veiled swipe at his Baltimore coaching?

Well, off to Chicago he went.

“There’s something to be said for letting players be themselves,” says Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein.

The cutter (or is it a slider?) returned. The Cubs made other mechanical changes too, giving him better balance on the mound, not leaning back to second base so sharply.

“Sometimes guys can’t perform at their best unless their mechanics are true to themselves,” Epstein says. “Turns out he was one of those guys.”

Crazy Jake Arrieta Stats

Now an interlude for the craziest Jake Arrieta fun facts, in easily-readable bullet points:

  • Over his last 21 starts, Arrieta has more no-hitters (2) than he has losses (1).
  • Over his last 25 starts, the median number of runs Jake Arrieta has given up is 0. ($1, Sam Miller)
  • Over his last 32 regular-season starts, which is about a full season, Arrieta has a 1.38 ERA. In the last century, only Walter Johnson (1.27) and Bob Gibson (1.12) had lower ERAs over a full season.Right after Gibson’s feat, Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound because pitching had become too dominant.
  • Over the last 365 days, Arrieta has held opposing hitters to a .175 batting average. In that same span, Arrieta has a .185 batting average as a hitter himself.
  • In his final start with the Baltimore Orioles, Arrieta gave up 5 earned runs over 4.2 innings. During one span last year, he went 104 innings in which he only gave up 4 earned runs total.

The PED Speculation

Some national-media types who don’t really watch baseball, let’s say their names rhyme with Grephen A. Grith, want to imply that Arrieta’s success is thanks to performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s not. And that’s all I’ll write in this section.

How Does This Relate to the Pirates?

The larger question is this, and it’s an important one when writing for a site called Pirates Prospects…

When you see the awakening of Jake Arrieta, now age 30, a man who by all accounts always had the talent to be a star pitcher but couldn’t sustain success, what lessons do you take for finding other Arrieta’s?

“It reinforces the power of the change of scenery,” says Epstein. “We do try to identify [those] guys. It’s a powerful phenomenon that can’t be fully explained all the time… a feeling of rebirth that can be really empowering.”

I followed up with Epstein, what characteristics can make a change-of-scenery guy successful?

“Belief in one’s self,” he responded.”The ability to handle adversity.”

Sound like new-age nonsense? A hippie-dippie ‘trust yourself’ attitude? Maybe so. But smart baseball dudes believe it.

“As opposed to being a contrived version of himself, he just became original Jake. All of a sudden, it worked,” says Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “A big part of that is your brain.”

“You’re seeing Jake Arrieta, raw.”

Maddon chuckles.

“I didn’t want to say ‘in the nude.'”

Neither did I, Joe.

The Pirates have a pair of talented pitchers close to knocking down the big-league door in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, along with other prospects like Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, and Nick Kingham. And there’s no reason to suspect they would clash with beloved pitching coach Ray Searage. But we know There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, and odds are at least one of the top two gifted guys, and a few of the lower ranked guys, will struggle in the Majors.

The Arrieta example shows talent can find a way, though, when there’s chemistry with coaches and a willingness to put in the work and elbow-grease the problems.

“If they’ve got great stuff, yes,” Zobrist says. “But not everybody has the mindset that he’s got; he’s very meticulous and precise in what he’s trying to do.”

The fastball, the curveball, they were always there, even in Baltimore. The differences are in the mechanics, the addition of that slider/cutter/slutter ($1, Harry Pavlidis) and that newfound ability to locate the pitches in a way that twists hitters up like a pretzel.

****

One postscript. At the end of a media scrum, I showed Arrieta this Twitter exchange with a “fan” back in 2013.

Jake Arrieta Talks to a Twitter troll

It was just after Arrieta had given up five walks and five runs over four innings in a home loss to the Dodgers, a game that turned out to be the penultimate start of Arrieta’s Orioles career.

I showed the screenshot to Jake. Did he remember it?

“Yeah.”

Do you still keep those things in mind, I asked?

“No,” he said. “Not until people bring it up.”

That’s Jake Arrieta. Raw.

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39 COMMENTS

  1. I love these simpleton solutions that some people propose?

    He said: immediately improve the team dramatically – Taillon, Glasnow, Bell, and Hanson

    I said: Great idea, but none of these four is ready for MLB. Nobody knows for sure, certainly not the two of us or anyone else? But experience tells us that Glosnow needs to work on that changeup for MLB hitters, Taillon needs to get in some real AAA work after two years of vacation, Bell at this point is not going to improve our 1B situation and Hanson is not going to play 2B nor hit over .300 as Josh Harrison is doing.

    Barring the Pirates going out and making some kind of deal for an expensive player (not going to happen) the PLAN they’re on must stay in place. Be competitive, stay close to the top, keep the Minors stocked, sign a Volquez, a Liriano or an A J Burnett where you can while doing the little things too (defensive shifts, framing pitches and throwing them in the dirt to catchers who can handle it all, etc. ).

    Unfortunately, other teams are working on the same kinds of things. The Cubs got lucky while reaping the results of good management in putting their team together. Consider, put Arrietta on the Pirates, coming from Baltimore, subtract him from Chicago and where would we be now?

    ans: in first place! It’s a game of inches, feet and yards.

    • Yeah, because Niese has set such a high standard – I cannot imagine that Glasnow or Taillon could possibly be ready enough to match Niese’s performance. Only simpletons cannot see what is obvious.

  2. Article lived up to my expectations, James. Well done.

    Now I’m no expert, but his ability to hit outside corner w fastball while pitching across his body makes his slider damn near impossible to lay off of or hit. And that’s why he’s the most successful pitcher in the game.

  3. Well, that was an embarrassing 3 game sweep at home at the hands of the Cubs…none of the games were even remotely competitive. I hope its a wakeup call to the Pirates FO, that this team, as constructed, is just not good enough. The rotation, defense, and bullpen are all sub par – and the only way to try to address them now is internal options. The good news is that the Pirates have 3-4 players at AAA who would immediately improve the team dramatically – Taillon, Glasnow, Bell, and Hanson – and when healthy again, add Diaz to the list. But, will the Pirates FO be willing to swallow their pride, quit being so cheap, and make the necessary changes NOW – not in June when we might be 10-12 games out of first?

    • Do you feel we could have been as good as the Cubs this year with 1-2 additions? Even 2-3 additions?

      I’ll take that optimism. Happ+Bastardo+Walker=/= us better than the Cubs.

      Poor offseason in bringing in 1 more SP and providing good pitching depth, but nothing gets us CHC level good. They had an insanely good team and went out and brought in a ton of talent at a premium.

      I hate it, but the Cubs are about a foot taller than all but maybe 1-2 other teams in baseball. Seems like fans pretended we would compete with CHC this year for most of the offseason.

  4. Excellent article. Can you please explain the statement that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect? Sorry, I must have missed that from previous articles.

  5. I love the guy. If you love baseball at all, you have to love him. It’s like watching Koufax and Marichal and Gibson in the ’60s, McLain and Carlton and JR Richard in the ’70s, Gooden, Ryan, and Valenzuela in the 80s… etc etc.

    This is the best part of baseball history. Not the schmaltzy field of dreams stuff, not the iconization of the Hall of Fame. The best part of baseball history is when you are actually at the game and seeing Jake Arietta mowing down hitter after hitter. The best part of baseball is watching Andrew McCutchen hit a home run in the bottom of the 14th. Baseball is best when you see it, not when you remember it. Or are told about it. Go see Jake Arietta when you can. And maybe next time the Bucs will take him down, and you can tell you kids about it.

    • Arrietta vs. Kershaw and Harper vs. Trout arguments are two really, really great things to have for this sport. Screw making baseball great again, it already is.

  6. MLBTR had an article up saying that the Astros tried to get him, but didn’t like what Baltimore was asking in return. I think both Houston and us wish he had gone there instead of Chicago.

      • I’d go with Nolan Ryan, but, yeah, Jake is something.

        I wonder what the Pirates could’ve had him and Strop for in ’13? The obvious answer is Pedro, but there’s no way the team would’ve given him up while they were competing and he was on his way to a HR title.

        Morton and Garrett Jones seems like a fit for what Baltimore got…maybe even an overpay.

        • If there were ever an argument for spending even a little bit of money while rebuilding, this is it.

          The Cubs were smart enough to acquire low-risk free agents with the intent of flipping them for long-term assets, and thus turned Scott F’ng Feldman into Jake Arrieta. Including Strop is just rubbing it in.

          • Heck, if was only Strop they got…I’d still call the Cubs a winner.

            Buying flippable pieces is a strong idea…the Pirates tried it for a little while, but were never never really that great at it. I think the best one they ever got was Lofton and the ended up dumping him in the Aramis trade.

            After that? Meh, Todd Ritchie? Danny Darwin? Damaso Marte?

            EDIT:

            Oh, and Dotel…forgot about him.

  7. What the Pirates Pitching Prospects Can Learn From the Jake Arrieta Renaissance

    And that is, to use PEDs????

    (I kid, I kid)

  8. Jaso’s comments in the Trib today sure make him sound like a jackass:

    “A lot of people are trying to talk him up like Nolan Ryan or something like that, I can’t really say that. He’s had a great start. It’s really good for him. That’s really all I can say. … He’s got good stuff, above-average stuff.”

    John, you and your team got demolished by the guy who very well can call himself the best pitcher of baseballs on the planet. Acceptance is the first step to recovery.

  9. Good for Jake, he stuck to it and turned his career around. I hate him but wish the Bucs had him.

  10. Baltimore…..1) Why would any FA pitcher in their right mind sign there? 2) How is it that they can’t develop any starting pitchers out of their minor league system? 3) Will their offense strike out over 2000 times this season?

  11. Baltimore telling this guy not to use the cutter was a hilariously dumb move. Id silently weep if i was a college/HS arm and Baltimore drafted me.

    • Tell me about it. Remember when the Baltimore dream rotation was going to be some combination of Tillman, Hernandez, Matusz, Arrieta, Britton, Garrett Olson and Troy Patton? All drafted or acquired between 2005 and 2008, all showed great stuff through at least AA. The cavalry never came.

    • I think the “change of scenery” and “mental strength” causes would carry a lot more weight if they weren’t overused in situations that don’t really have much to do with them.

      Arrieta is unquestionably mentally tough and an extremely hard worker, but he sucked because the O’s can’t develop pitching. Period. They’re awful.

      Even a**holes like Epstein and Maddon can’t just come out and say that, though, so they narrative builds around the reasons above.

      • I really think “change of scenery” honestly just means a change in coaching/attitude.

        Its not just a new team in general that helps players, its a new team with different ideas for said players. For instance, i dont think Arrieta leaving Baltimore itself wasnt enough to make him Walter Johnson. But Arrieta leaving+hooking up with about 10 teams with adequate pitching coaches and bam.

  12. As a Pirate fan the only thing I could say about Arrieta is that I hope that he, Marcus Stroman, pitch for Puerto Ricon in the WBC next year! It will make for a very interesting tournament. The guy is good and it’s kind of exciting to watch a pitcher who is capable of tossing a perfect game at anytime.

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