Cubs

Baffoe: Jake Arrieta And Progress

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Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Tim Baffoe - clean background Tim Baffoe
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his de...
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By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS) Last week it was six perfect innings. Monday night it was 7 2/3 innings of no-hit ball. Stands to reason that Jake Arrieta’s next scheduled start for the Chicago Cubs in Washington will involve at least zero Nationals hits through eight complete, right?

Of course that’s ludicrous to expect, but the 28-year-old Arrieta’s time with the Cubs has been one of progression to bigger, better things. When he was acquired from the Baltimore Orioles a year ago Wednesday along with Pedro Strop (who himself has been a bonus out of the bullpen), what seemed at the time to be the best part of the deal wasn’t even actual people but instead the international bonus slots the Cubs got. Arrieta was described by Yahoo’s David Brown as an “eternal prospect” and in regards to what would make the acquisition a success, he wrote this:

“Success for the Cubs means that Arrieta has gone from disappointment to serviceable starter. Sometimes a change of scenery can help, Baltimore GM Dan Duquette said. Arrieta, only 27, has a 5.46 ERA in 358 career innings after projecting as perhaps a good No. 3 starter in the minors. Moving anywhere, but especially to the National League, should help him.”

I think it’s safe to call that trade a success then. And all you had to give up was the solid-but-over-30 Scott Feldman who is now amid a three-year, $30-million deal as a veteran anchor on the fascinating Houston Astros project and another in a long line of short-lived folk heroes, Steve Clevenger. And the Cubs are paying Arrieta half a million this season (he’s arbitration eligible after the season and not a free agent until after 2017). Think about that.

It’s probably a good idea to have faith in the Cubs front office going forward when it comes to potential trades this season, because receiving Arrietas for Feldmans is all part of the Great Plan that bit by bit seems to be coming to fruition. So when you clutch your pearls every time you hear that Jeff Samardzija won’t be signing with the Cubs or think “How can they be shopping Jason Hammel with his sub-3.00 ERA?” whisper to yourself “Arrieta.” If you want the Cubs to continue to progress toward contending for postseasons, Arrieta is much a microcosm of what it will take.

A change of scenery has benefitted him more than just clearing his head of underachieving in the Orioles organization. In fact, it may have actually been the Orioles who were retarding his progress. General manager Dan Duquette banned the cutter from their system, maybe detrimentally so.

“Why don’t you take a look at the chart with the average against cutters in the big leagues, batting average against and then come back and tell me that that’s a great pitch,” Duquette said in 2012. “We don’t like it as a pitch.”

Since joining the Cubs, Arrieta’s cutter use (and it’s debatable whether the pitch is actually a slider) has increased drastically, and it’s obviously been a boon for him. As Eno Sarris of Fangraphs recently wrote:

“He’s never used the cutter more than 15% for a season, and now he’s doubling that number regularly all of a sudden. Maybe we can believe his improved walk rate.

“But there’s more to it than just raw usage — Arrieta was also using the pitch in fastball counts in (the June 18) seven-inning, 11-strikeout, one-walk win. His first pitch of the game was a cutter, and he threw the cutter on the first pitch against a third of the batters he saw. That’s almost three times higher than his first pitch cutter usage over the last three years (12%) and higher than the league’s first pitch cutter/slider usage as well (17.6%). That trend holds for those last five games, when Arrieta has used his cutter 24% in the fastball counts described above (57% for his fastballs). Not quite as stark as (Oakland’s Jesse Chavez, who has also seen success with cutter use), but still different than league average.”

Arrieta’s two most recent starts stand out most in our minds, but what about bigger picture? I mean, many a sketchy pitcher has flirted with a no-hitter, and a few have somehow completed one. Mediocre guys go on hot streaks. More from Fangraphs:

“So what does that mean? This year, 157 starters have thrown at least 50 innings. Arrieta ranks:

– Fourth in strikeout rate
— Sixth in K% – BB%
— First in ERA-
— Second in FIP-
— Sixth in xFIP-

Arrieta isn’t just pitching well. He’s pitching like one of the best pitchers in the world, polishing off a June that put him in the company of Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw… Jake Arrieta looks to be turning a corner, and while the reasons for that are numerous, what the Cubs care most about is simply that it’s happening. Whether the turnaround is because of a better slider, or whether the better slider is the result of improved overall mechanical consistency, the Cubs are watching the emergence of a long-term organizational asset.”

Because he was smartly gambled on in exchange for a solid-but-old veteran starting pitcher.

That’s progress.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.

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