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Cubs Tue Jul 01 2014
During Jake Arrieta's last two starts, Cubs play-by-play man Len Kasper has had to endure his screaming critics on Twitter claiming he's jinxing the young fireballer by talking about the perfect game and no-hitter Arrieta was working on in the late innings of each ballgame. If Vin Scully, who's literally called seven percent of no-hitters in the history of Major League Baseball, doesn't believe in no-hitter jinxes, then nobody should. Jinxed performances or not, Arrieta has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in the month of June.
When the Cubs traded Scott Feldman to the Orioles for Arrieta and Pedro Strop last July, the team was taking chances on a pair of cost-controlled pitchers who showed flashes of brilliance, but were never able to harness anything close to consistency. They had worn out their welcome for a Baltimore team looking to follow up their 2012 trip to the playoffs with a deeper run in 2013, and the Orioles needed a starting pitcher they could trust. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer struck at the opportunity.
Despite some struggles during his brief time in the closer role, Strop has been excellent in the Cubs bullpen. He's racked up a 2.92 ERA in his now one full season in Chicago, and has struck out 72 batters while walking just 26 in his nearly 62 innings of work.
Arrieta spent his post-trade days of 2013 in triple-A Iowa trying to iron out control issues that had plagued him his entire career to that point. His stuff was never a question: a fastball that touched 95, a curveball with solid two-plane break in the mid-70s, a slider that was in the high-80s, along with a changeup in the mid-80s that he uses a couple times per start. Getting all the offerings over the plate was the struggle, as proven by his walk per nine innings rate being over four during numerous stays in the minors and majors.
After starting the 2014 season late due to shoulder inflammation, he struggled with command once again. Though his walk numbers weren't astronomical, he failed to make it to the seventh inning in his first seven starts, which included three games where he couldn't even make it through the fifth.
Then the light turned on. Arrieta, realizing that his slider (a pitch many have confused with a cutter because of its varying velocities -- though he is adamant that it's all the same) has been wildly effective, has beefed up his usage of it. Combining the cutter (labeled 'CT') and slider (labeled 'SL') percentages on Fangraphs, Arrieta has gone from using it under 20 percent of the time in his first six starts combined, to using the pitch over 30 percent of the time in each of his last five starts. The radical difference has resulted in quality starts in all of those last five outings, including a bid for a perfect game and no hitter in his last two starts respectively.
The sample size is still quite small, but Arrieta has gone from maddening inconsistency to an All-Star candidate in the matter of 30 days. Last night's start against the Red Sox was beautiful to watch, and when he got through the seventh inning unscathed, the cool stats started flying. The last pitcher to no-hit Boston? None other than current Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who's tutelage has helped countless pitchers in the organization over the past few seasons. Arrieta is Bosio's latest pupil taking his performance to the next level, and if the trend continues, Bosio might be getting calls about managing positions in the offseason.
Jason Hammel started throwing his two seamer more after coming to Chicago, and he's having the season of his life. Arrieta has morphed into a slider machine, and has just wrapped up his best month of pitching in his career. Bosio and the Cubs staff have surely helped these guys, but it's these players' talent that has gotten them to where they are in the first place. Hopefully Arrieta can keep this run going into July and August, when he might be leaned upon even more heavily than he is now.