When Jake Arrieta returns to Wrigley Field on Tuesday, there will be plenty of cheers for him, both from the stands and from the Cubs’ dugout – and not just because he won’t be taking the mound against the home team, though that would be reason enough.
The Cubs can count their lucky stars that the Phillies’ pitching rotation looks to work out in their favor. Arrieta is slated to start on Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, which means he won’t be pitching in the three-game series that starts on Tuesday here at Wrigley.
Arrieta is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Philadelphia, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s been almost unhittable. In his last start against the Dodgers, he threw seven scoreless innings to finish May with a 0.90 ERA. Despite missing most of spring training and the early part of the regular season because he didn’t sign his three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies until the second week of March, Arrieta has compiled a 5-2 record and 2.16 ERA in 10 starts this season.
Hard to believe that this is the pitcher that no team wanted all winter and far into spring – including the Cubs, who chose Yu Darvish in free agency instead.
It seems that the 32-year-old bearded righty thrives on proving others wrong about him. As he did when the Baltimore Orioles gave up on him in 2013 and packaged him and reliever Pedro Strop in a trade to Chicago for pitcher Scott Feldman, who is still an unsigned free agent this season.
A one-sided trade if ever there was one. Two years later, Arrieta won the National League’s Cy Young Award, going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA. He followed that by going 18-8 in 2016 and 2-0 in the World Series, helping the Cubs to end professional sports’ longest championship drought.
Arrieta kept trying to tell all the doubters that they were wrong about him, that he was worth every penny that he and his agent Scott Boras were demanding. No one listened all winter. That includes Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. Like the rest of us, he saw the decline in Arrieta’s performance in 2017, when he went 14-10 with a very human 3.53 ERA. Probably mostly what Theo saw was Arrieta’s inability to go deep into games and a worrying drop in velocity. Arrieta’s average fastball velocity dropped from 94.9 mph in his Cy Young season of 2015 to 92.6 mph last season, according to PITCHf/x data.
Yet Arrieta is showing this season that he doesn’t necessarily need to throw in the mid-90s to get batters out. He’s no longer overpowering batters, but he is generating some of the weakest contact in baseball.
Still, skepticism persists. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller questioned whether Arrieta can sustain the early success he’s seen this season. In an article titled, “Why Can’t Jake Arrieta Strike Anybody Out Anymore?” the writer pointed out that the noticeable issues that plagued Arrieta last season – the decreasing strikeout rate in tandem with the increasing walk rate – haven’t gotten better this season. “Arrieta has been able to pitch around these deficiencies, totaling a 2.45 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 51 1/3 innings this season, but his FIP is at 3.24, his xFIP is 4.02 and his SIERA is 4.31,” Beller writes. “The bet here is that Arrieta cannot survive this combination of strikeout dearth and walk abundance much longer.”
But, ultimately, results matter. And Arrieta somehow keeps getting batters out and winning games, and, in turn, helping to lead the surprising Phillies to a 31-23 record through May.
All the things that Cubs fans haven’t seen from Darvish early in his career in Chicago. Through eight starts with Chicago, Darvish sports a 1-3 record and 4.95 ERA. Currently, he’s on the 10-day disabled list with right triceps tendonitis, his second trip to the DL after an earlier bout with the flu. Not what you expect when you fork out $126 million over six years, the price the Cubs paid for the four-time All-Star.
That kind of start has led to headlines like this one in the Chicago Tribune: “Yu Darvish: It’s not that you’re on the DL — it’s that you’re not Jake Arrieta.” And this one at Bleacher Report: “Phillies Star Jake Arrieta Showing Cubs They Were Wrong to Give Up on Him.”
The comparisons between Arrieta and Darvish are inevitable and won’t soon end. Only time will ultimately tell if Theo Epstein and the Cubs made the right bet in the end. But so far, it’s clear that only one of the two has lived up to the expectations that come with signing a free agent mega-deal. Luckily, the Cubs aren’t likely to face him this week. Perhaps even luckier for the Cubs is that their two biggest divisional rivals – the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals – were among the many teams in the offseason that passed on a chance to acquire the former Cy Young winner.
Randy Richardson is the co-author, along with fellow Wrigleyville Nation contributor Becky Sarwate, of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team and Their Stories of Pain, Loyalty, Hope and (Finally) Joy.