Just a Bit Outside: Baseball's Most Dominant Pitcher

by Sam Stockton | 5/1/16 5:53pm

Baseball’s Most Dominant Pitcher

On July 2, 2013, the Baltimore Oriels traded Jake Arrieta, then struggling in Triple-A Norfolk while bouncing between the majors and the minors, to the Chicago Cubs. He was optioned immediately to Triple-A Iowa. At the time of the trade, David Brown of Yahoo! Sports said that the Cubs would benefit from the trade if Arrieta could become “a serviceable starter.”

On April 21 of this year, Arrieta threw a no-hitter. This no-hitter came on the heels of no-hitting the Los Angeles Dodgers last August with just nine starts in between during sanctioned major league games. As if it could possibly be argued that the two no-hitters were somehow flukes, Arrieta’s record from early July 2015 to the second no-hitter is an astonishing 20-1. To be clear, this means that during that window, the Texas native had more no-hitters than losses. In fact, his only loss came when his Cubs were no-hit by Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies. His ERA over that span is 0.86. He has surrendered four home runs and hit three of his own. Arrieta has clearly become, at the very least, “a serviceable starter” in Chicago. But how did he transition from struggling minor leaguer to ace? The answer is, in a word, freedom.

In Baltimore, pitching coach Rick Adair told Arrieta that he had to abandon the delivery he’d used his entire life. According to Adair, the crossfire delivery — foot toeing the third-base side of the rubber — that Arrieta had used to earn a 23-7 record over three years at Texas Christian University would not work in the pros. Arrieta pitched for Team USA as a sophomore and went 4-0, included in this record. Adair replaced the crossfire step with a straight-to-home one. He moved Arrieta all over the rubber. Arrieta struggled; his ERA soared, and the stuff that led to his godly stretch from June to now was nowhere to be seen. When Arrieta left Baltimore, he took a huge step, a crossfire step that is, towards becoming the ace he is today.

In Chicago, Arrieta made two major changes. First, Cubs’ brass, knowing what Arrieta was capable of, allowed him to return to the crossfire delivery he used at TCU. The Cubs freed Arrieta up to pitch how he wanted. Pitching coach Chris Bosio made a few tweaks, but with the Cubs, Arrieta didn’t have to think — all he had to do was pitch.

Second, Arrieta changed his workout regimen. He freed himself from his traditional workout routine and began going to a Pilates studio near his Austin home. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Arrieta said, “Pilates has been around a long time but maybe was taboo in this sport. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see [Pilates equipment] in every big league clubhouse.” With the way Arrieta is pitching, I’m sure he’s right. He credits Pilates with improving his flexibility and balance while adding strength to his legs, taking pressure off his arm in generating power. Since taking up Pilates, he’s been going deeper into games and pitching better while he’s out there.

In a time that could be called a golden age of pitchers, Arrieta is the best. Until late last season, saying that anyone other than Dodgers’ star Clayton Kershaw was baseball’s best pitcher was nothing short of ludicrous. To see Kershaw’s name in the pitching probable was to pencil in a Dodger victory. Sure, 2015 was not his best statistical year, but Kershaw remained a strike-out inducing machine with a knee-buckling curveball.

What separates Arrieta is what baseball scouts would call his stuff. Arrieta presents an arsenal of pitches that makes a batter’s life impossible. His four-seam fastball tends to come at hitters at 95 miles per hour. However, his two-seam, which he throws at the same speed, is so good he hardly turns to the four-seam. He adds a cutter that serves as a haunting compliment to the two-seam. It comes at different speeds, sometimes low 80s, sometimes mid 90s. It looks like the two-seam until it breaks the other way, when it moves like a slider. It’s the kind of cutter Mariano Rivera used to throw exclusively, only for nine innings, not one. On top of that, unlike with Rivera, the cutter is just one of several devastating pitches. When hitters sit on his quicker pitches, he mixes in a dangerous power curve. Long story short, the variety of Arrieta’s arsenal means that hitters are never comfortable against him. By the time they are certain whether they have been thrown a two-seam or a cutter until they hear a thud coming from the catcher’s mitt. Just when they think they’ve adjusted to the pure velocity of those pitches, he mixes in that nasty curveball. Against Arrieta, you can’t win.

Joe Maddon has stated that Arrieta will be pulled from games earlier than last year to avoid unnecessary wear on his arm. This news surely comes as a relief to hitters everywhere. Even with the lightened workload, he will earn a second straight Cy Young by the time the season is over. Finally pitching the way he is most comfortable, Arrieta has developed an unstoppable arsenal. Thanks to the fitness he developed courtesy of Pilates, Arrieta will be able to keep that arsenal on display for a long time.