An in-depth look at how Jake Arrieta has retooled himself for success in 2021
MESA, Ariz. — What are the Cubs going to get from Jake Arrieta in 2021?
It’s one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding this team as the regular season approaches. Arrieta will take the ball in the Cubs’ second game against the Pirates on April 3.
When he last pitched for the Cubs, Arrieta was in the prime of his career and finished in the Top 10 in National League Cy Young voting three straight years, including 2015 (when he took home the award). He is the last Cubs pitcher to win a playoff game and ranks among the franchise leaders with 5 postseason victories.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect a 1.77 ERA and another 15-start stretch that ranks among the most dominant in MLB history. But Arrieta and the Cubs truly believe he can be closer to that level than what he showed during his injury-plagued years with the Phillies.
“Stuff is great. I think the shape on the curveball and the cutter is as good as it’s been in two-plus years,” Arrieta said after his spring outing Tuesday. “My move towards the plate is much more effective, much more consistent. The depth on the sinker is better than it’s been in a number of years.”
During that start Tuesday, Arrieta faced many of the starters in the White Sox powerful lineup and allowed only a run on 5 hits over 5.2 innings. He struck out 3 and did not walk a batter, which was a big takeaway for him.
He was particularly impressed with one of his strikeouts when he got Luis Robert on a sinker that was well below the strike zone.
“That just tells me that the action is going straight down and when I have that going, when I can get guys to swing over the top of a sinker like that, I know I’m in a good spot,” he said.
In fact, Arrieta has felt so good recently, he hasn’t even needed to dip into the well of his full repertoire for his changeup. He’s rarely thrown the pitch this spring and takes that as a good sign that he’s been effective with only three of his pitches.
He’s also impacted the team even on days he hasn’t pitched, serving as a mentor to Adbert Alzolay and stepping up as a valuable leader for this pitching staff.
When Arrieta signed with the Cubs just before spring training, he cited his relationships with the coaching staff as a major reason.
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy was the team’s run prevention coordinator when Arrieta emerged as a Cy Young winner and Mike Borzello is still around as a major part of the pitching infrastructure.
Manager David Ross caught some of Arrieta’s starts (including his second no-hitter) and Cubs bullpen coach Chris Young spent two years with Arrieta as a pitching coach on the Phillies staff. Then there’s bullpen catcher Chad Noble, who spent years catching for Arrieta in side sessions and warm-ups and has seen the World Series champion at his best
That familiarity has Arrieta feeling confident with Opening Day a week away.
“The insight and the homework done by Borzello, Hottovy, CY, David Ross, Chad Noble and the rest of our analytical staff and our video team, just breaking things down and helping me with information that I can use to make adjustments to get back on track to get where I need to be in order to have the deception and the consistency that I need that I’ve had in the past,” Arrieta said. “Minor tweaks in the delivery, in the setup on the rubber. I’m very thankful for that group of guys who has worked as hard as they do to help me as much as they have.
“We’ve worked really hard over the past six-to-seven weeks. It’s really rewarding to see the progress and continue to make strides in a positive way and really, really happy for that. Excited to get started in April.”
As the Cubs went about rebuilding Arrieta’s delivery and making the desired adjustments this spring, a big key was understanding he is not the same pitcher he was in 2017.
For one, the velocity no longer ticks up to the mid-90s. His age also comes into play as even though he’s still in great shape, a 35-year-old Jake Arrieta might not be able to repeat his unique delivery the same way 29-year-old Jake Arrieta could.
At the beginning of camp, before Arrieta had even thrown in a game, Hottovy explained a bit more what the Cubs identified and why they believed they could turn back the clock with the veteran right-hander.
“Getting him back to the ’15-16 Jake Arrieta would be ideal, but in the realistic sense, not trying to shoot as high as the numbers is getting him back to the basics with his delivery, with our gameplanning,” Hottovy said in an interview on Marquee Sports Network. “With the thought process of — he works best when he’s attacking the strike zone and has angle. When I say angle, I mean working on top of the baseball and creating that depth on the pitches.
“You watch a lot of when he battled injuries over the last few years, you just saw things that were a little higher in the strike zone, but not all the way up in the strike zone. It was kind of like that belt line, a lot more flat and horizontal movement. He’s going to generate movement no matter what. If we create angles, create down angles or up angle, the horizontal stuff is going to take care of itself.”
So the Cubs set out to get Arrieta’s delivery back to the deceptive motion he had in his first stint in Chicago and prioritized staying on top of the baseball to create those angles.
Arrieta and the Cubs have been pleased with that progression throughout camp.
Arrieta also believes he’s in a good spot right now due to improved health. He pitched with a bone spur in his elbow in 2019 and a meniscus injury in his left knee in 2018 made it impossible to maintain his unorthodox delivery.
“The torque on my knee was so intense that I had to take a more direct line to the plate and that kinda carried over to 2019 and 2020,” Arrieta said. “…Sometimes it can be hard to retrain the brain to do something different than it’s been doing for two or three years.”
Arrieta admitted the retraining process can sometimes be frustrating but stressed how important spring training has been to create good habits that carry over into a season where the results matter and he has to repeat his delivery for 100-plus pitches.
As he went through the free agent process over the winter, Arrieta maintained a believe that he would feel comfortable wherever he landed. But the history with the Cubs was too much to pass up and that familiarity has led to a sense of optimism.
“I think the only thing that’s gonna happen or transpire is positive. Does that mean I’m gonna perform at an elite level every start? I would like to, but baseball usually dictates otherwise,” Arrieta said. “Being here is very positive for me.”
We’ll see how the season plays out for Arrieta, but camp has gone about as well as he or the Cubs could’ve ever hoped for.