After a three-year detour in Philadelphia, Jake Arrieta is back with the Cubs. But unlike his first stint in Chicago, he’s not a post-hype sleeper the Cubs are trying to develop and unlock. He’s also not what he became with the Cubs, a front-of-the-rotation ace, expected to lead the team well into the future. At his age, after what happened in Philly, and on just a one-year deal, Arrieta’s goal for 2021 should be much narrowly focused: (1) Eat some innings, (2) get back to at least league average, (3) provide leadership, and (4) show a young rotation how to prepare, compete, and win at a championship level.
Of course, I wouldn’t tell him any of that:
Asked Jake Arrieta what he felt he still needed to prove after having so much individual (2015 NL Cy Young) and team (2016 World Series) success in his first tenure with the #Cubs. Full quote below. pic.twitter.com/Yxgu2t1QE2
— Russell Dorsey (@Russ_Dorsey1) February 20, 2021
Arrieta, 34, is likely well past his physical prime and has already seen his effectiveness wane and velocity slip since leaving Chicago. But in the quote above, he rightfully points out that health issues have limited his productivity over the past few years – both directly and indirectly. And if that physical luck turns around in 2021 (which, hey, why not? Arrieta is famous for his health habits and preparation) he believes he has a lot left to show.
But that’s hardly all the Cubs are counting on.
“My arm slot wasn’t where it needed to be, it wasn’t as effective,” Arrieta said. “I was more on the side of the baseball. My off-speed didn’t necessarily have the depth and the late life that I’m accustomed to. That’s what we’re working on to get back to.”
Sharma points out that Arrieta’s velocity dropped off right alongside his arm slot, so there could be at least some hope that mechanical adjustments, better health, and a normal Spring Training could provide a little more heat (which could help his other pitches in compounding ways), but that’s not exactly the entire plan, either. Arrieta seems to have come to terms with a lower velocity, “I don’t necessarily think I’m going to be the 97-98 anymore,” and together with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, believes that there are other ways to be effective.
Specifically, Hottovy intends to help Arrieta pound the bottom of the strike zone, where his lower velocity fastball will play better than it would up in the zone (despite recent trends throughout the league moving in the opposite direction (for example, I’m thinking about all the recent success Kyle Hendricks has had up in the zone with his fastball, despite the obviously even lower velocity)). The hope is that Arrieta can tunnel his cutter more effectively off of that low and away two-seamer and go up more sparingly/as needed.
And the beauty is that he and Hottovy seem to be on exactly the same page, citing the benefits of the Pitch Lab and an evolved approach to his entire game. “I have seen a shift back towards kind of the foundation of pitching,” Arrieta said. “Which is establishing down and away, changing speeds and then changing eye level after we’ve developed the ability to consistently throw down and away.” If anyone is going to take advantage of the bevy of new data and methods of adjustment, it’s a hard worker like Jake Arrieta.
So while no one should expect 2015-2016 Arrieta back out on the bump in 2021, a healthy body could help tighten up his mechanics, and an evolved approach on the mound could help maximize what he does have left in the tank. And if he happens to help out the rest of the rotation in a behind-the-scenes kind of way to boot, this reunion will be a clear success.