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Right-hander battles control issues

NSR’s Kevin McCarthy takes a look at Jake Arrieta’s recent battle with pitch counts and fastball command.

Cubs fans scoffed at Jake Arrieta six weeks ago when he flatly answered, “no,” when asked if he would take a hometown discount to resign with his current team. 

How could you blame the guy? He was pitching lights out. At the time, he was 6-0 with a 1.13 ERA. He was on an unprecedented run dating back to last season, with a paltry 0.92 ERA in his last 27 starts. Much of the talk suggested that an ace like Arrieta would be in the market for a Matt Scherzer or David Price type of deal — seven years, for north of $200 million. Not too shabby. He’d finally be able to afford a razor. 

Since his start in St. Louis on May 25th, where the Cubs won their 23rd straight game with Arrieta on the mound, he hasn’t looked like himself. And that’s bad—because right now, the Cubs need Jake Arrieta to start pitching like himself. But more than that, Jake Arrieta needs Jake Arrieta to start pitching like himself.  

Allow me to explain the ladder statement before the former. First, I’m not trying to be a reactionist—“Oh my word! He’s terrible! Cut him—and his beard!”—but, since he’ll be a free agent after the 2017 season, Arrieta likely wants to gets a deal done as soon as possible.

His sample size of success is small. He came out of no where to become one of the best pitchers in baseball, but I won’t bore you with the whole story since every Cubs fan has heard it a million times. But, it makes his contract situation particularly interesting. The sinker-baller can’t afford many more hiccups. 

Right now, he’s struggling with control, the very problem that troubled him during his time in Baltimore. 

In the month of June, he’s made three starts that ended after just five innings with pitch counts of 108, 106 and 93. He’s struggled to get ahead early in counts. Hitters are taking Arrieta’s first pitch nearly 70 percent of the time this season and that has resulted in a called strike only 40 percent of the time. 

"There are worse problems to have. It’s a 100th of a second or a 10th of a second off in the timing to get back to that spot,” Arrieta said in a post-game interview. “I’ll work these next four days to get there.”

He was right to brush off the problem the way that he did. It’s not like he’s getting knocked around the yard each time out; in his last six starts, he’s only allowed more than four hits on one occasion. The walks are his Achilles heel—he’s averaging 3.5 BB/9 innings this season, far higher than his 1.9 rate from 2015. 

It’s important to note that other than the walk numbers, everything else seems to be fine. He’s averaging a league-low 5.7 hits per nine innings pitched, his velocity on all five of his pitches (fastball, sinker, slider, curve ball, change-up) is exactly as high as it was last season and his strikeout numbers have stayed steady.

In short, it seems to just be a control issue, and Arrieta needs to regain his control if he wants to recapture the success he was experiencing over the last year—which will, in turn, get him paid. 

Now, as for why the Cubs need Arrieta. I think this is obvious. 

After Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks’ late season regressions last season, the Cubs can’t be sure that they’ll continue to pitch the way they have. The Cubs need Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey to be at their best as the season rolls along. It’s a formidable one-two-three punch, perhaps the best in baseball, when healthy and pitching the way they’re capable. 

Since the middle of last year, no one has questioned who the ace of this staff is. That argument has been settled.

Jake Arrieta is as competitive as they come, I don’t doubt that he’ll come back better than ever. There are no signs that point to this being anything other than a control issue. That being said, it’s not like he’s been wild — he’s barely missing the zone. That’s fixable. 

If the Cubs want to end their World Series drought, they need him to start pitching like the ace that we’ve all come to know over the last year. If that happens, there’s no doubt that his ship will come sailing in, too.  


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