By Chris Emma–
(CBS) Standing tall on the mound, Jake Arrieta gripped the baseball tightly. His index finger and middle finger spread to one seam, his thumb grasped the other.
Breathing heavily, Arrieta stared down six-time All-Star second baseman Chase Utley of the Dodgers, and the Los Angeles crowd stood along with the Cubs ace. This 1-2 pitch on Aug. 30 will be remembered as a defining moment of the right-hander’s career. Arrieta went into his windup, pulled that grip from his glove, reached back and fired a breaking ball that dropped from the heart of the strike zone down to Utley’s shins and into Miguel Montero’s glove. Utley had no chance.
Arrieta had just thrown a no-hitter on ESPN’s primetime Sunday Night Baseball. With the world watching and the Dodger Stadium fans backing a Cub, Arrieta reacted with a loud scream to no one in particular and calm walk to Montero. The stadium offered a raucous roar, too, because the 29-year-old Arrieta had just finished history.
Before the game, ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Dan Shulman introduced Arrieta by saying, “He may not be as big a household name as some other starting pitchers – including his own teammate, Jon Lester – but this guy’s having about as good of a year as anybody in the National League.”
Following the final out, Cubs players swarmed their ace. Montero offered Arrieta an embrace, Anthony Rizzo playfully jabbed his side and Jonathan Herrera heaved water on the team celebration. They had been along for Arrieta’s rise to stardom, from his 2013 fight to stay in the big leagues to his emergence as a Cy Young candidate.
But until the no-hitter in Los Angeles, the name Jake Arrieta didn’t carry the perception of a baseball superstar.
“If you don’t know me now,” Arrieta said, “you better ask somebody.”
‘I’m doing it my way’
Years and years down the road, Scott Feldman’s name may carry great significance in baseball history. Its meaning in 2015 brings great joy to patrons at Wrigley Field.
On July 2, 2013, the 30-year-old Feldman was then the key piece of a Cubs-Orioles trade that brought reliever Pedro Strop and a struggling 27-year-old pitcher named Jake Arrieta to Chicago.
In Baltimore, Arrieta had never amounted to his status as a top-100 prospect in baseball, with his ERA leaping to a sky-high 7.23 mark with the Orioles in 2013. He was even demoted by Baltimore back to Triple-A Norfolk, a dark place for a struggling veteran.
Chicago brought Arrieta a fresh start and the chance to approach his career differently. Sticking to form, Arrieta didn’t make excuses for his failures in Baltimore, but former Orioles teammate Zach Britton admitted the change of scenery was for the best.
“A lot of it was the pitching coaches he had to work with here – that’s just kind of the truth of it,” Britton told ESPN.com in August. “People talk about the change of scenery, but you either got it or you don’t. It’s just somebody getting on the same page as (him). Somebody that can coach or teach him the way that he’s able to learn.”
Arrieta pointed to how he processed information as a reason for his struggles as a young pitcher, as it took him a while to compose a routine. Pitching coaches weren’t able to help Arrieta much, because he wasn’t able to handle the material. He simply wasn’t comfortable in preparing for each time on the mound.
When Arrieta became a Cub, he started fresh by finding his own ways to prepare.
“Being my own coach,” Arrieta explained. “Doing things I know that I can do differently to be successful, and finally saying, ‘I’m not doing it your way anymore. I’m doing it my way.’”
What Arrieta needed so desperately was hands-off coaching. Simply put, Arrieta needed a mentor who could let him by himself.
Following three weeks with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs after being traded in 2013, Arrieta joined the Cubs on July 30 and was worked into Dale Sveum’s rotation. It was in Chicago where he met respected pitching coach Chris Bosio, whose approach fit with what the pitcher desired.
“When we got him, we knew we might have something pretty special here,” said Sveum, now the hitting coach with the Royals. “It sounded like it came down to just letting this guy be an athlete instead of mechanical.”
Arrieta finished the 2013 season with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts with the Cubs but also a 4.94 FIP – fielding independent pitching, a metric designed to better measure a pitcher’s earned runs. There was much work to be done. He was only beginning to embrace his fresh start.
‘This is where I’m meant to be’
On June 30, 2014, a massive storm swept through the city of Chicago. Many local streets were flooded, power lines were knocked down and millions of local residents of the metropolitan area were without power. Those whose electricity held had a chance to watch Arrieta throw a gem a thousand miles away in Boston.
In the first inning, Arrieta put a fastball past Dustin Pedroia at 94 miles per hour. In the second stanza, he swept a slider by David Ortiz that dropped out of the zone. In the third, he heaved a slider away from Stephen Drew’s desperate swing.
Less than three weeks prior, Arrieta had a no-hitter broken up in the fifth inning in Philadelphia, and he lost a no-hit bid in the seventh against Cincinnati in the start before Boston. He was scratching the surface of what he could do.
One of the tweaks Arrieta had applied to his mechanics produced a more deceptive slider. Arrieta can utilize a traditional sharp, downward-breaking slider or make it look and act more like a cutter. He went so far in spring training as to tell Fangraphs that this key pitch was a slider and cutter in one, and he will throw the pitch at varying speeds in varying forms.
The differing degrees of late movement in the pitch can make the best of hitters look lost.
“The finish on the pitch — you can see the hitter’s reaction, it’s incredible to watch,” current Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
On the stormy 2014 summer night in Chicago, the city was fascinated by Arrieta and his domination of the defending champion Red Sox. David Ross, then Boston’s catcher, chased a curveball in the dirt during the sixth inning. Daniel Nava was fooled by a slider in the seventh. One batter later, Pedroia nearly fell in the batter’s box as he was overpowered by a high fastball. Arrieta was dominant.
Two outs into the eighth inning, Drew returned for his third at-bat and finally broke up the no-hit bid with a single. Arrieta received a standing ovation from the Red Sox faithful after 7 2/3 scoreless innings of one-hit ball, his work rewarded in the form of the Cubs’ 2-0 win. those back in Chicago realized they had something special in the works.
Throughout the 2014 season, Arrieta stayed at work with Bosio, fine-tuning his game. He gained true command of his fastball – an issue in Baltimore – and combined that with a nasty slider/cutter, curveball and changeup. His arsenal was set.
“Bosio’s been outstanding,” Arrieta said. “He’s got 12-plus years in the big leagues. He’s got a no-hitter under his belt. He knows what it takes to succeed on a consistent basis at this level. That’s the type of information that he’s been able to give me. He’s been hands-off with me a lot, and he jumps in at the appropriate time. Not many pitching coaches know when to do that appropriately.”
In 2014, Arrieta compiled a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts, and his FIP was more telling – a 2.26 mark that ranked second in baseball (minimum 150 innings pitched) behind only NL MVP Clayton Kershaw.
Baseball’s next pitching star had finally broken out.
“It’s not shocking to me or surprising,” Arrieta said of his rise. “It’s almost like this is where I’m meant to be.
“I think people sometimes think this game is easier than it is, when you get guys like Kershaw coming to the big leagues when you’re 19, 20 (years old) and have success immediately. It’s just not that easy. How many times are 40- and 50-year-old businessmen struggling to keep their companies together? And then, 10 years later down the road, they figure it out. It’s the same way with this game. There’s no perfect formula or equation to find a guy’s success. They have to almost tinker with things and figure it out on their own. And sometimes, that process takes longer than they’d like.”
‘Better than everyone else’
The Cubs arrived at spring training in 2015 with many new faces. Maddon had become the club’s third manager in as many year; key veterans like Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero were signed; and a youth movement was underway with the likes of Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell joining Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.
Through it all, the new appearance of Arrieta stood out among the new Cubs. He had a burly beard and was noticeably more built. Maddon immediately took notice of Arrieta, a pitcher he once watched struggle in Baltimore while managing the Tampa Bay Rays. This was a new man, Maddon thought.
Maddon observed the way that Arrieta worked – and worked and worked. Arrieta wanted to perfect his craft and also his body. He was striving to be in top physical condition.
“This guy should really be in the next Jane Fonda workout video, on the male side of things,” Maddon said in April.
In April, the Wrigley Field interview room – a tiny, dungeon-like room with pipes, loud echoes and a corporate-sponsored backdrop for press conferences – received a new addition: Arrieta’s new Pilates machine, which fills a large portion of the small room.
Before Arrieta took the mound for a start in July, Maddon entered the room for his pregame press conference. Arrieta was hard at work with his Pilates, completely tuning out Maddon and the media members on hand. “Area 51,” Maddon joked as he moved his media session outside to the dugout.
One of the most important factors of Arrieta’s emergence was the way he prepares between starts. He greatly values the four days in between appearances on the mound. Some starters spend their free time in the clubhouse getting the early-bird special on the postgame spread or enjoying a cocktail. Arrieta’s often finishing up a workout before joining his team in the dugout.
“Regardless of what I have going that day, there’s something I can do to get better,” Arrieta said. “I pitch one out of five days, so the four days in between are vitally important for me to find some way to get better.”
Arrieta’s constantly keeping himself busy between starts. While he’s hard to find before a game, he’s usually donning a cutoff and dripping sweat. He’s at work, even on off-days.
Before each game, whether he’s starting or not, Arrieta can be found working out, studying scouting reports or even taking in extra batting practice. His two home runs this season weren’t a fluke. That stemmed from hard work many pitchers aren’t willing to put in, because Arrieta prides himself on hitting, too.
“He does everything necessary to get himself in the best shape and to feel as best he can for that given day,” Cubs pitcher Travis Wood said. “When he goes out, his stuff’s outstanding, and he gets it done.”
Added Cubs reliever Justin Grimm: “I just think he’s a specimen, to be honest.”
Years of striving for success brought Arrieta to 2015 and what would become a magical season. In his first start of the season, on April 8, he pitched seven shutout innings against the rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field. It was a tone-setter for what was to come.
Quite comically, Arrieta was snubbed from the All-Star Game this year, despite a 10-5 record and 2.66 ERA. He has returned to work in the second half of the season by recording an 11-1 record and a remarkable 0.80 ERA, on pace to be the best post-break mark in baseball history. (Arrieta is scheduled to make his final regular-season start Friday against the Brewers.)
Arrieta’s a Cy Young candidate, along with the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, whose 1.68 ERA is just as outstanding, and Clayton Kershaw. Maddon believes Arrieta’s an MVP candidate, too.
“What he’s done in this second half is unparalleled,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s ever seen it. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it. Nobody has ever seen what he’s doing right now.”
Sept. 22 brought Arrieta’s 20th win of the 2015 season. Fittingly, it came in a complete-game shutout in which he struck out nine Brewers and surrendered just three hits. Twenty victories symbolized a special season for Arrieta. On Sunday night, Arrieta nabbed his 21st win while taking a no-hitter to the seventh inning against Pittsburgh.
Any way to look at Arrieta’s numbers is impressive. In 20 of his 32 starts, he allowed one earned run or worked a shutout. Since the start of August, he’s had eight starts without a run allowed, in 11 appearances. He’s allowed just 53 hits and two home runs in 101 1/3 innings since the All-Star break.
Adding awards to the accolades would force Arrieta to reflect on his sensational season, something he hasn’t yet taken the time to do. But everything he’s accomplished has been imagined. He’s been toward this point, perfecting himself along the way.
“It never surprised me,” Arrieta said. “Really, I’ve expected this my entire career. Even when I struggled in Baltimore, I knew this moment was close. I knew it was close.”
That moment has arrived for Arrieta, who has solidified his place as arguably the best pitcher in baseball.
In the future, Arrieta has plans to start his own business, something he’s prepared to begin work with in the coming years. The focus would be on one of his greatest passions, living a healthy lifestyle. His future is just as bright off the field.
On Oct. 7, Arrieta is scheduled to take the mound for his most important day of work, pitching for the Cubs in the wild-card playoff game. This 2015 season will remembered in part for his performance in that game, most likely against the Pirates. But one of the greatest runs a pitcher has ever produced is what will tell the tale of this year.
If you don’t know Arrieta now, you’ve missed out on something extraordinary. From humbling times in Baltimore to a Cy Young-worthy season, he’s been driven by one goal.
“Just to be the best,” he said. “That’s it. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I want to be better than everybody else. That’s just the way I live my life.”
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.