About a week ago, Jake Arrieta tried to throw a perfect game against the Cincinnati Reds. I mean, every pitcher is always trying to throw a perfect game, but Arrieta actually made a lot of progress before ultimately falling short. Then, Monday, Arrieta tried to no-hit the Red Sox. A no-hitter is a little less perfect than a perfect game, but Arrieta got deeper before ultimately falling short — again. He departed to a standing ovation in Fenway Park. For Arrieta, in the small picture, it was a pair of frustrating missed shots at history. For Arrieta, in the bigger picture, it was a twin demonstration of the pitcher Arrieta is becoming. You might not realize this, but the Cubs rotation has the highest WAR in the National League, and it’s not all because of the two trade targets.
Once again, in his latest start, Arrieta was masterful. Once again, Arrieta kept hitters off balance by mixing everything and featuring a lot of his new, improved slider. Or maybe it’s a cutter — people haven’t agreed. Arrieta was constantly down and constantly on the edges, and as the Red Sox waited for him to make mistakes, he picked up out after out. Arrieta turned in a start worthy of a tribute, so, as a tribute, I’ve taken care to identify the eight worst pitches Arrieta threw to the Red Sox during his 7.2 innings. It wasn’t an easy project.
In the bottom of the first, Arrieta got out ahead of Dustin Pedroia 0-and-2. An 0-and-2 count doesn’t always call for a waste pitch — no count should ever really call for a waste pitch — but there is such thing as a quality ball. Arrieta wound up throwing a fastball, just about middle-middle. Pedroia, however, wasn’t expecting it, and he swung and couldn’t catch up. So Arrieta finished a spotless inning.
We move all the way ahead to the bottom of the fourth. Leading off, Brock Holt fell behind 1-and-2. Then he took a low slider, and fouled off a low fastball. Arrieta came back with a changeup, that, based on the target, was supposed to be down. Instead, it stayed up, but it functioned as almost a front-door two-seamer. Holt was completely confused. The called third strike started another perfect inning.
After Holt, Arrieta reached a full count against Daniel Nava, with one down and nobody on. He knew he wanted to throw a strike, and he came with a backdoor slider, but it caught a bit much of the outer third. Nava popped it up.
The Red Sox’s first baserunner was Mike Napoli, who walked in a 3-and-2 count in the bottom of the fifth. The fourth and fifth pitches were both high-inside fastballs, for strikes. Arrieta thought he’d come back with a low fastball to try to catch Napoli off guard on the lower edge, but he missed by a few inches and put Napoli on.
Mookie Betts reached a 2-and-1 count leading off the bottom of the sixth. He’d seen a curveball down-and-away, a fastball down-and-away, and a slider down-and-away. That’s when Arrieta came in with a fastball, but the fastball ran a little more over the plate than Arrieta would’ve liked. Betts knocked a routine fly out to center.
There was one out in the bottom of the eighth when Xander Bogaerts stepped in against Arrieta and fell behind 1-and-2. After a curveball just barely missed in, a pair of low-away sliders were received well by Welington Castillo. Arrieta’s 113th pitch was a fastball intended to be down-and-away, but it missed up and it missed in, and Bogaerts made Junior Lake jog a little bit to get the ball in his glove. Arrieta’s previous season high was 105 pitches.
The next pitch was No. 114, which began a showdown with Stephen Drew. Arrieta hadn’t thrown a 114th pitch since April 2012. Going with a curveball wasn’t a bad idea, but the pitch missed off the plate. From the looks of things, had the pitch found the zone, Drew would’ve taken it for a strike. Most first-pitch curveballs are taken, often for strikes. At this point, the Cubs were both rooting for the no-hitter and rooting for an immediate clean single, so Arrieta wouldn’t have to pitch tired.
Our last pitch is Arrieta’s final pitch, No. 120. With Drew in a 2-and-2 count, Arrieta wanted to spot a fastball in the low-away corner. The pitch missed in a few inches, and though it had the right height, it was centered over the plate. Drew yanked it into right field, where the ball dropped in front of Nate Schierholtz. Out went Arrieta and in came Pedro Strop. As Arrieta approached the top step of the dugout, he appeared to mutter something to himself.
And that’s it. Those, to me, were Arrieta’s biggest mistakes, out of a season-high 120 pitches. Two of them generated strikeouts. The last few were when Arrieta was entering uncharted territory, in terms of his pitch count. For the most part, the mistakes didn’t miss by much. While I suppose it’s possible any one of those mistakes could’ve been hit out of the yard, remember that this is eight pitches out of 120, and every pitcher makes mistakes. Most mistakes are left unpunished. Arrieta was almost as flawless as can be, and even most of his worst pitches were adequate. It was a special night for a guy turning into a special pitcher.
With Arrieta, it’s all about his command. He wants to work down, especially now that he’s featuring his slider or cutter more heavily than ever. This season, 66% of his pitches have been no higher than 2.5 feet off the ground. His previous season best was 56%. On Monday, Arrieta threw 79% of his pitches at or below that 2.5-foot threshold. That’s the highest single-game rate of his career. Of his five best career outings in that regard, four of them have been his four most recent starts, and this might be the best indication of Arrieta’s rapidly improving command. He’s always wanted to work low, and now he’s mastering the edges.
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. Arrieta absolutely got some breaks — he made a pair of starts against the Marlins, and he rolled through the struggling Phillies. But this isn’t a pitcher who’s a product of his opposition. 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. A more casual way to put that is that Arrieta’s doing super good right now.
Arrieta’s under club control through 2017. The Cubs got him and more for three months of Scott Feldman. Not that the Cubs could’ve known this would happen, but it only ever has to happen once or twice for a team to come out way, way ahead. This isn’t even why the Cubs made that trade. They made the trade thinking Arrieta might turn into a reasonable No. 3. For the organization, this is kind of unintended genius. For Arrieta, this sport is finally getting fun.
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