Cubs fans have gotten used to Jake Arrieta taking the bump every fifth game and shutting down opposing offenses, but might be coming to an end in the near future. After getting a late start due a DL stint to start the season, Arrieta has looked incredibly sharp, going 6-4 with a 2.61 ERA, 2.32 FIP and 1.02 WHIP in 19 starts.
And let's take a look at those career-best numbers for just a moment. Since coming over to the Cubs in the Scott Feldman trade last year, Arrieta has looked like a completely different pitcher. In 3+ years with the Baltimore Orioles, he compiled a 20-25 record with a 5.46 ERA and 1.47 WHIP.
In making the deal with Baltimore, the Cubs saw a pitcher who had excellent stuff but had fallen on hard times. They also saw a young guy who had walked 159 batters in only 358 innings, nearly 4 per 9 innings, which is pretty awful. He had also allowed 48 home runs in that same span, more than 1.2 per 9, also not good.
Yet another knock on Arrieta was that he only averaged about 5.2 innings per appearance. So the Cubs looked at a guy with control and pitch count issues and who was susceptible to giving up the long ball and thought, "Hey, this is the perfect pitcher to help anchor our rebuild!"
Well, yeah, sort of. Because in spite of the inflated ERA, Arrieta had a FIP that sat nearly three quarters of a run lower, at 4.72. He had also struck out 277 men, nearly 7 per 9 innings. He had all the tools, but he didn't really know how to use them efficiently enough to be successful.
And whether credit goes to Arrieta himself or to pitching coach Chris Bosio, the change in scenery has clearly been a good move. In addition to the numbers above, Arrieta should set a personal high for innings pitched in his next start, his 20th of the season.
His previous high-water mark of 119.1 was set in 2011 and required 22 starts to achieve. The following year, he accrued only 114.2 innings in 24 appearances (18 starts). But that same breakthrough that gives Cubs fans reason to celebrate may also give the team's brass pause.
For as much as Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer may be viewed as maverick gamblers, their moves are highly calculated. As such, they're not going to be quick to risk the health of their best arm just to set career-best marks in meaningless games. But are the last 30-some games really meaningless?
As CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney reported, manager Ricky Renteria seemed to hint at the possibility of dialing back Arrieta's workload when assessing his pitcher's performance on Sunday:
“We have to see how he’s feeling,” Renteria said. “He’s obviously been pretty good, so it’s still one of those things — I think — where we monitor his pitch counts and his innings. It’s been something where he’s been grinding it out pretty good.
“He’s given us quite a few outings where he’s gone deep into ballgames. But we’ll just continue to assess and evaluate and make that determination as we continue to move forward.”
While there'll be no playoff race in the Cubs' future, the home stretch could be an important period for the growth and development of young players and for the confidence of a burgeoning staff ace. For what it's worth, Arrieta wants to compete the rest of the way, saying:
“As far as being shut down, I’ve heard nothing about that. Obviously, I would love to remain (in the rotation) and finish the season out, however many starts I have left. I feel fresh, I feel healthy. So, yeah, I’m good.”
There haven't been any serious talks about shutting Arrieta down, so anything at this point is mere overture. But the Cubs are looking to at least space his starts out a bit more by calling up a replacement pitcher once in a while, as evidenced by Dan Straily's start on Saturday.
When it comes to another of their stars though, the Cubs don't appear to be very worried. Only a couple days after lighting up social media by blasting his minor-league-leading 40th home run, walk-off shot no less, Kris Bryant had Cubs fans talking for an entirely different reason
When Bryant left the Iowa Cubs' game early on Saturday night, millions of breaths were held as hearts leapt into throats all across Cubs Nation. Thankfully, an MRI on Sunday revealed only a foot contusion.
So Bryant is listed as day-to-day and should soon get the chance to resume his swoon-inducing season in AAA. As for Arrieta, the same appears to be the case. But you can be sure that the Cubs will be closely monitoring both players the rest of the way.
But when it comes to the remaining games, does the presence of either Bryant or Arrieta on their respective rosters really matter? Will another couple wins or home runs on the ledger really make a difference to the Cubs? In my mind, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
For as much as all the numbers can tell us about a player's past performance, the momentum gained from finishing the season strong may be even more meaningful and telling when it comes to the future. Confidence is as addictive a substance as anything Heisenberg himself ever cooked up, and also something for which the Cubs and their fans have been jonesing for far too long.
Too often in these days of increasing scrutiny on peripheral stats, we tend to eschew the mental side of the game, sometimes treating confidence and momentum as little more than inert contrivances. But when you're talking about a franchise and a fanbase as hypochondriacal as these, maybe a placebo is just what the doctor ordered.
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