CHICAGO – After each game, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta receives about 20 to 60 text messages from friends and family. After his start Tuesday, the amount he received was on the high end of that estimate.
Arrieta carried a perfect game into the seventh inning that day. For casual fans of baseball, his name might have been unfamiliar. But for the more hardcore fans, the mention of his name brings up memories of hype and unfulfilled potential. Once a heralded prospect in the Baltimore Orioles system, Arrieta now is fulfilling the once vast expectations placed on him when he first entered the league.
“It was a good start, first six innings obviously were pretty special,” Arrieta said Thursday. “Special night, nonetheless, I was able to connect with a lot of family and friends. “
So why has it taken Arrieta this long to fulfill his potential? In his words, baseball is a hard sport, and it’s even harder to play at a high level. However, a more detailed answer might explain the growth curve, one that varies from player to player.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the development as a person and a player, something that can take a while for a lot of guys,” he said. “You really have to go through times where you struggle and have to find out who you are as a player and what you’re willing to do to get to where you want to go.”
In 10 starts this season for the Cubs, Arrieta owns a 4-1 record with a 2.05 ERA. Those kinds of numbers are what the Orioles had in mind for Arrieta when he first came up in their system about four years ago. In 64 appearances for Baltimore, Arrieta failed to meet his lofty expectations, accumulating an ERA of 5.46.
Once someone who struggled with command and control, Arrieta is now walking batters at a career-low rate – 2.37 batters per nine innings, according to FanGraphs. This is also one of the reasons Arrieta is throwing fewer fastballs than ever before. Thus far this season, he’s throwing fastballs at a rate of 20.9 percent. Before this season, his previous low was 28.2 percent, per FanGraphs.
In Arrieta’s eyes, this is less of a conscious effort, but more a result of him getting ahead of the count. It also has to do with confidence, which Arrieta claims is at an all-time high.
“It’s such a tough game to play and if you’re not confident in your ability and also you ability to do it on a daily basis, it’s even tougher,” he said. “If you don’t feel confident you can do that, then chances are you are going to struggle.”
With the trade deadline inching closer, the Cubs’ roster could be in for major changes. Fellow starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel could be on the move. If so, Arrieta would be one of the most experienced pitchers left, and with it would likely come an increased role of leadership.
“I kind of like having those responsibilities and reaching out to guys that are trying to make the transition from Triple-A or Double-A to this level, and kind of everything that goes with that, both on and off the field,” Arrieta said. “It’s just been something that I ‘ve wanted for a while.”
That transition is something many ballplayers struggle with. Some make it right away, some never do. And in most cases, patience may be the best course of action.