Back on May 20, we learned about a mechanical issue Cubs starter Jake Arrieta had been working to correct. The very next night, he tossed a 6.0 inning shutout against the Milwaukee Brewers with six strikeouts and just one walk.
Including that start and the three that followed, Arrieta put together a wonderful four-game stretch (2.63 ERA) from May 21 – June 6, which was encouraging precisely because of the chance that his “fix” may have actually worked (and would keep working). Unfortunately, a cut on his thumb and some over-heating/sweating issues popped up and derailed his next two starts: combined 9.0 IP, 6 ER, 5BB, 10K (6.00 ERA, 4.69 FIP).
But, not unlike his effort to address his mechanical issues at the end of May, Arrieta has been taking a proactive approach to fix these annoying external issues. First, he’s helped his thumb heal faster by skipping his sessions between starts, and as for the sweating, well …
Yep. Jake Arrieta has shaved his head and trimmed up his beard.
Of course, unlike the story of Samson, Arrieta’s loss of hair seems to have helped him perform better. Last night, as a matter of fact, he turned in one of his best performances of the year:
Arrieta v. Marlins: 7.0 IP, 6H, 1ER, 0BB, 3Ks, 82 pitches
Yesterday’s start against the Marlins (watch Arrieta’s highlights here) marked just the third time since the start of LAST season that Arrieta allowed no walks in a game. In part because of that, he was able to go seven innings for just the second time this season, while throwing only 82 pitches. Interestingly, he mentioned that he was working with some “pretty low” energy (somewhat due to the heat, once again), but was able to be successful nonetheless.
The Chicago Tribune has a collection of Arrieta’s postgame comments, so you’ll want to check that out in full, but there’s one I wanted to point out here, first: “It was one of those days,” said Arrieta, who relied a lot on changeups to economize his work. “The body just doesn’t feel that good. We really preach pitching to contact, regardless of how you feel.”
When Arrieta was at his best (2015), he was one of the kings of soft contact. He had solid strikeout and walk rates, for sure, but pitching to contact and getting a lot of soft contact was what allowed him to reach at least 6.0 innings in 30 of his 33 starts. Given that his strikeout and walk rates have already rebounded in huge ways this season, a return to his more efficient, contact-first approach could result in a more efficient and successful Arrieta.
[Brett: Obligatory something-something about not pitching to home-run contact, which has been one of the big bugaboos for Arrieta this year – and the one run he allowed last night came on a monster Marcell Ozuna shot.]
Right now, Arrieta’s overall production is still uninspiring (4.36 ERA, 4.10 FIP, 1.3 WAR), but it’s been trending in the right direction for quite a while. Even including those two terrible cut/sweat affected starts, Arrieta’s numbers have been good since May 21:
Seven starts (40.0 IP): 3.15 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 3.57 xFIP
He is still rocking solid strikeout and walk rates during that stretch, but the most exciting part is that his batting average against drops from a ridiculous .287 before that stretch to an excellent .215 after. If Arrieta can continue to keep that mechanical adjustment working, his thumb healed, and the sweat off his brow, then he may be set up for some prolonged success.
It’s been a bumpy road, but the best is yet to come for Arrieta and the Cubs in 2017.