The Chicago Cubs continue to inch closer to their third consecutive postseason appearance. And with those October odds higher than ever, rotation conversations will be kicking up, albeit with time to spare before final decisions are made.
Before Jake Arrieta left his September 4th start against the Pirates with a hamstring injury, he looked like a no-brainer (theoretical) NLDS Game 1 starter for the Cubs.
Not only was Arrieta fresh off NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August (the fourth such award of his career), he’s also had previous experience and success in the postseason with the Cubs. Of course, an injury in the last month of the season doesn’t do much to inspire confidence and it certainly doesn’t leave much time for Arrieta to prepare.
But last night, Arrieta officially returned to the mound, and now figures to get two more starts to ramp back up and prove to the Cubs that he’s still their guy to open up the playoffs.
Stepping back to last night, a tremendous performance that we don’t want to see lost in the swirl of emotion surrounding a thrilling game.
Working with a 75-80 pitch count, Arrieta was going to have to be economical in this one, and that’s precisely what he was. Requiring only 71 pitches on the night, he lasted 5.0 full innings, allowing just one earned run (a solo homer) on five hits, one walk, and two strikeouts. Had he the health to keep going, things were shaping up for a really nice overall start on the road against a playoff contender. As it stands (i.e. knowing the context), the start was about as good as it could’ve been.
More specifically, Arrieta’s fastball velocity was once again strong (higher than his season average, according to FanGraphs), though he wasn’t generating much in the way of swings and misses (1 whiff on the night total). He had plenty of command with his sinker, though, throwing it for a ball just 28.2% of the time (33.9% with the Cubs), and combined with his velocity, that’s an extremely good sign. Also: several of those balls were not balls.
Arrieta also managed to limit the hard contact to just 28.9% last night (league average is roughly 32%), but his 52.9% fly ball rate was far higher than you’d prefer to see, while his 23.5% ground ball rate was about as low as you’ll see it for any one of Arrieta’s starts. In fairness, the Brewers were selling out for the long ball at times.
But again, all things considered, I think it’s safe to say that start went as well as it possibly could have. Moreover, Arrieta simply looked really good.
How does Arrieta think it went?
“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said via CSN Chicago. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible.” He later suggested that he didn’t feel any pain or discomfort throughout the start, but he seems to suggest that there was some “residual feeling” of something like a hamstring strain.
In any case, he went on to say that how he felt today would be the biggest indicator of how things would progress going forward and that he sees no reason why he shouldn’t feel good.
So, to sum up, Arrieta looked good, felt good, kept his velocity, maintained his command, and ultimately got the results he needed. Not bad for a guy on pitch count who missed multiple weeks.
I don’t think he’s quite re-cemented himself as the locked-in Game 1 starter – last night, alone, can’t tell you that – but he’s certainly the frontrunner. Two more good starts and he’ll probably be the guy.