In Baseball America's 2010 list of the top-100 prospects in baseball, the #1 pitcher listed was Stephen Strasburg. Of course he was. He was the prototypical starter, a computer simulation of a man designed to throw baseballs as hard as he wanted, where he wanted. The last pitcher listed was Jake Arrieta, and he was the oldest pitcher on the list. He was a fastball attached to a traditional starter's body, and he made the list because, dunno, maybe it'll come together for him.
Cut to three years later, and Arrieta is making the last start of his Orioles career. He's facing Max Scherzer, another prototypical right-handed ace and everything Arrieta is not. With his seventh pitch of the game, the soon-to-be-ex-Oriole looped a boring, flat slider to Miguel Cabrera, who paused briefly to laugh at the pitch before bludgeoning it.
Arrieta's final pitch as an Oriole was all metaphor.
I'd like to think that Arrieta literally thought "He'll never look for a belt-high fastball in the middle of the zone!" before throwing that. After throwing that final pitch, he was pulled from the game, rotation, 25-man roster, and eventually the organization. He was 27, with a 5.46 career ERA in 63 starts, and the Orioles were tired of waiting around for him. They were in a pennant race, just 2½ games out of first, and they traded him for the sleepy competence of Scott Feldman, who did exactly what was expected of him. No more, no less.
This is Arrieta now, of course:
The pitcher in the first video looked like he just stepped off the teacup ride, disoriented and a little nauseous, as baseballs were knocked around the field. The pitcher in the second video is a bearded ogre, as imposing before he throws a pitch as when the pitch is on its way. And there's a tendency to want to make Arrieta mean something. He's a pitching Rorschach test, and you can turn him into whatever you want. Before you get too deep into that, though, here are some do's and don'ts about Jake Arrieta, unexpected ace.
Do: Look at him as proof that raw, unrefined pitchers with great stuff always have a chance
On every roster, there are three pitchers who could make an All-Star team if they could just harness their stuff. As the average fastball in baseball starts ticking up into the mid-90s, there are going to be more latent Arrietas than not. All they need to do is become more consistent with their mechanics, repeat their delivery, refine their location, and develop their secondary stuff.
Go through that list again. Mechanics, delivery, location, secondary stuff. It's not like that's from the secret list of some pitching iconoclast, getting ready to change the world. It's literally what every pitcher, majors and minors, is going to work on today. And tomorrow. And the next day. For a select few, everything will lock into place and the fog will lift.
Don't: Assume your team has another Arrieta somewhere in the organization
As in, don't assume that in every organization, there's a 6'4" righty with a fastball in the mid-90s who will eventually learn to put it where he wants. It sells the unlikeliness of Arrieta's story short. The muscle memory involved in clean, repeatable mechanics isn't something that's guaranteed for everyone with enough practice. Every pitcher has a ceiling with their command, an invisible upper limit that's defined by their natural athleticism and internal wiring. Arrieta's ceiling turned out to be a lot higher than most of his 95-mph peers, but he just proves that it's possible for a stuff-monster to turn into an All-Star, not probable.
Put it this way: Every professional golfer can hit the snot out of a ball on a tee. They're all trying to do the same thing around the course, too, using the same mechanics with the same tools to achieve the same desired results. They'll all work at it for 60 to 80 hours a week. Some of them will succeed more than their peers. Some of them wildly so. It isn't as simple as assuming that with enough hard work, every golfer who can touch 300 yards on a drive can eventually become a superstar. And that's a point that's so obvious, it isn't really worth pointing out.
For some reason, though, it's so easy to dump pitchers into an if-he-only-had-command barrel, as if it's just that easy and obvious to fix. No, if it were that easy, there would be a lot more Jake Arrietas around. "Possible not probable" is the catchphrase, here.
Do: Laud the Cubs for getting him
Bad teams trading fringe regulars aren't going to get blue-chip prospects. They often go for a kernel of hope, though. Sometimes it's a defensive whiz up the middle who hasn't hit a lick in the minors, but would be an All-Star if he could just get his OBP over .330. Sometimes it's a speedy, disruptive player who can't get on base, or a huge batting-practice legend whose 500-foot home runs are as legendary as his swings on 55-foot curveballs. Get one tool -- just one -- that stands out from his minor league peers, and hope the organization can shape that ore into something.
When it came time for the Cubs to trade a valuable, if unspectacular, starting pitcher, they could have gone for a well-rounded AAAA player, someone who could fill in at a couple different spots, or maybe a fourth outfielder. They went for latent potential, though, and they got a pitcher with untapped potential back for a pitcher with completely tapped potential. Yeah, that's how those trades work.
Where you should laud the Cubs, though, is with picking Arrieta specifically. He was 27, with enough service time to make him closer to arbitration than the typical prospect. It would have been a lot easier for the Cubs to pick a name off a list of hard-throwing teenagers who couldn't find the plate. They saw something they liked with a pitcher closer to 30, though, and they nailed that evaluation.
Don't: Be too hard on the Orioles
Arrieta was 27 and lousy. When they sent him back to the minors, he was unimpressive there, too. The gap between his ERA and FIP suggested that he was unlucky, or perhaps hurt by his defense, but it never suggested he was an ace-in-training. There will five pitchers with this kind of profile traded in the next six months, and none of them will come close to what Arrieta is doing.
Put it this way: Over the last five years, with all the deadline deals and offseason trades, with all the top prospects and former first-rounders being exchanged in July and December, what were the biggest success stories? Arrieta and Corey Kluber, another older semi-prospect with good stuff and poor results who was acquired for a role player in a minor deal. Both of them have outpitched Strasburg, who was expected to become a pitching deity before he even threw a minor-league pitch. It's just a reminder that if you climb Mt. Olympus with your bare hands to get an audience with the baseball gods, the only thing at the top will be a 30-foot-tall shrug emoticon glowing as bright as the sun.
Do: Kind of side-eye the Orioles a bit, though
It sure has been a while since they've developed a frontline starting pitcher. Do they get credit for Zach Britton and Brian Matusz, or because they couldn't become the starters they were projected to be, are those marks against them? Is Chris Tillman a success story, or is he proof that the organization specializes in erratic success stories, only? Why have they jerked Kevin Gausman around so much? How did Eduardo Rodriguez improve so much after he left their clutches? Will we ever see Dylan Bundy, and could he have avoided calamity if another organization were in charge of his well-being?
These are all rhetorical questions, and I'm not smart enough to answer them. All I know is that it's completely fair to wonder why the Orioles weren't the ones to refine Arrieta's potential and wonder if it speaks to a larger problem within the organization. They've burned through an awful lot of top pitching prospects over the last few years, and all they have to show for it are two confusing starters and two late-inning relievers.
Do: Look through mechanical evaluations to see what Arrieta is doing differently
They're fun! Here's one from Harry Pavlidis at Baseball Prospectus from a year ago:
His leap forward is actually built upon some gradual changes he's implemented over the past few years. His slider has become firmer—many call it a cutter—and he relies less on a four-seam fastball than he did earlier in his career, opting more often for the sinking two-seam variety.
As his slider firmed up it also increased its range. Arrieta will add and subtract from the pitch, often fooling observers into thinking that they're seeing two separate pitches (your humble author raises his hand).
And here's one from Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs:
Is it because of the mechanical work? Is it because of the slider? Is it because of the release? The answer, simply, is "yes", as Arrieta’s benefited from everything in raising his game to an incredible level. If you’re looking for a shortcut, though, you can never go wrong with "improved mechanical consistency."
"Formerly Bad Pitcher is now Currently Good Pitcher: What's different about him?" is one of my favorite genres of baseball article. After reading enough of them, I hope to one day spot the transformation before the improved performance makes it obvious.
Don't: Assume there's a eureka! moment
Or Arrieta will get annoyed with you:
"There’s no perfect delivery, there are no perfect mechanics," he said, not frustrated by the badgering, but also not about to put his improvement all on one change.
With Kluber, a coach saw him messing around with his two-seamer during a side session, and his fortunes changed immediately after ditching his four-seamer. There was a eureka! moment.
With Arrieta, he ... just got better? He worked and worked and honed his craft, and it all paid off? Well, that's not a very sexy origin story. It'll have to do, though.
Do: Appreciate that this is happening for the Cubs right now
The last time the Cubs spent their first-overall pick on a pitcher was in 2010, on Hayden Simpson. He lasted 32 starts and finished with a career ERA of 6.83, never getting above Class-A. The entire organization has been built on hitting, hitting, hitting, using the high picks on hitters and hoping the pitching falls into place. In one sense, it seems like they're punting half of what it takes to be a winning team.
In reality, though, they're just supremely confident in their ability to use their financial flexibility to acquire pitchers, as well as their ability to shape raw nuggets of pitching ore into something valuable. They don't need to waste first-rounders on that. Here is Arrieta as proof that the Cubs have an eye for talent, and the ability to do something with that talent when they acquire it.
And instead of them stumbling into this jackpot in the middle of a 90-loss season, he's arrived out of the mists at the absolute perfect time. Jake Arrieta is an unexpected ace for a team that was absolutely desperate for one. It's possible to read too much into this, but as long as you remember a few things along the way, you're probably right. This does mean something.