10 Degrees: Free from O's purgatory, Jake Arrieta flourishing with Cubs

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Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist
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During their lowest moments, the four pitchers who were supposed to save the Baltimore Orioles looked at one another and asked a simple question: “What the [expletive] happened?” Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz had spent months “doming each other out mentally,” as Britton put it, “trying to fix each other” after the relationship with their pitching coach threatened to ruin their careers. And around came July 2, 2013, and the fourth of the Orioles’ great arms stuck in this baseball purgatory got his pardon.

Jake Arrieta (AP Photo)
Jake Arrieta (AP Photo)

Long before he threw two no-hitters over a nine-start span and turned in one of the greatest stretches of pitching in baseball history, Chicago Cubs ace and reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta was a failed Orioles prospect. Like Britton, Tillman and Matusz, he chafed under then-Baltimore pitching coach Rick Adair, whose pitching philosophy ran in direct contrast to those of the players.

“They took away the individual approach to everything,” Britton said. “Things we did extremely well in the minor leagues to get to the big leagues – we were told that just doesn’t work here. And you’re like, ‘That’s kind of weird, right?’ You don’t just reinvent yourself in the big leagues. That was the struggle. And the struggle, as we got older, was trying to get back to what made us what we were before.”

Nobody felt this more acutely than Arrieta, whose cut fastball – the pitch with which he now flummoxes hitters more than any – was forbidden. Adair later told reporters it was because Arrieta had a mass removed from his elbow and needed to treat it tenderly. The disagreements devolved into constant train rides between Baltimore and Norfolk for the four, none of whom ever developed a rapport with Adair like they have with Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, today’s pitching and bullpen coaches.

“With Dave and Dom, if Jake had the opportunity to work with them, I don’t see why he wouldn’t have done here what he’s done there,” Britton said. “The stuff was the guy who could throw two no-hitters. That didn’t just come out of nowhere.

“He thought he would do that. He’d tell you he was gonna do that, too, and you were like, ‘OK, Jake.’ There were times he’ll come off as extremely confident, but he’ll talk to you privately and you’ll see what’s going on. That’s kind of what I saw toward the end of his time here. Giving the façade of extremely confident but not confident at all.”

Perhaps there are things at which …

1. Jake Arrieta does not excel, at which his grandeur doesn’t manifest itself so obviously. Because the way Arrieta is pitching, one could lose all five senses and still somehow understand the brilliance of what is playing out on ball fields across America.

Perhaps most amazing about Arrieta’s latest no-hitter was that of his four starts this year, it was the very worst in terms of command, and sometimes games like that have gotten away from him. Not Jake Arrieta 2.0, free of pitching coaches who wanted to handcuff him to something that wasn’t his after the July 2, 2013 trade that brought him and Pedro Strop to Chicago in exchange for rental arm Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger, who isn't an Oriole anymore, either. Arrieta wanted to throw across his body, which the Cubs let him do. And he wanted to throw more fastballs, which the Cubs let him do. And he … are you sensing a pattern?

“He’s so confident now,” Britton said. “And it’s not the fake confidence. You know he’s comfortable in that organization.”

Instead of trying to make Arrieta into a cookie-cutter pitcher, the Cubs embraced allowing him to find what made him comfortable. They bought a Pilates machine because he loved it and installed into their new clubhouse a dance party room and now, after the no-hitter, he has a 0.87 ERA, 21 baserunners allowed in 31 innings and 26 strikeouts. If not for …

2. Kenta Maeda, Arrieta would have the best ERA in the NL, too. Maeda, of course, is nothing like Arrieta, aside from the whole really-successful-thus-far-in-2016 thing. His fastball lives at 90 mph. His slider is really two pitches: a cutter he uses against right-handers and a slower one with which he nibbles outside against left-handers. He throws a curveball and changeup frequently enough for hitters to think about them, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Kenta Maeda (AP Photo)
Kenta Maeda (AP Photo)

Following another scoreless outing for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, Maeda’s ERA dropped to a National League-leading 0.36. He is the first pitcher ever to give up just one run total in the first four starts of his career. The only black mark on his 2016 ledger: a solo homer by Joe Panik on one of those sliders that didn’t slide. Otherwise, Maeda’s first turn around the league has been spotless and made him look like the bargain of the offseason.

Concerns about Maeda’s medicals torpedoed any shot at a big-money deal, so he signed an eight-year contract for $25 million guaranteed with the Dodgers and bet on himself to reach big incentives. Bonuses for games started begin at 15. If Maeda reaches 32, he receives an extra $6.5 million. Innings are similar: starting with 90 he gets a nominal incentive, and if he gets up to 200 innings, it maxes out at $3.5 million.

The Dodgers gladly will pay an extra $10 million a year if it means a 30-plus start, 200-inning pitcher. Those are worth far more than the $13 million Maeda would receive, even factoring in the $20 million they gave to his Japanese club as a posting fee. When international deals work, they can be glorious successes. And when they don’t, in the Dodgers’ case, they’re just glad …

3. Hector Olivera isn’t their problem anymore. Los Angeles unloaded the Cuban defector to Atlanta last July, and the Braves expected him to join the middle of their lineup in due time. Instead, Olivera is on administrative leave through at least May 3 after allegedly assaulting a woman in a hotel, and his future – which almost assuredly will include a hefty suspension from Major League Baseball – is unclear enough that the Braves are trying to get rid of him.

Since Olivera’s arrest, Atlanta has tried to trade the 31-year-old outfielder, two sources told Yahoo Sports. Olivera is signed through 2020 for $34.5 million, a hefty sum for a player without even 100 major league at-bats and with an alleged domestic-violence rap. Said one executive whom the Braves queried about any interest in Olivera: “I can’t believe they even asked.”

The precedent was set in the offseason, when soon after the revelation that …

4. Aroldis Chapman had fired a gun in his garage and allegedly assaulted his girlfriend, the New York Yankees traded for him anyway. Chapman was found guilty of nothing, but the message was sent: Talent trumps all. The Yankees happily ate his 30-game suspension for what he’ll give them upon his return May 9.

Aroldis Chapman returns on May 9. (AP Photo)
Aroldis Chapman returns on May 9. (AP Photo)

If all sticks according to plan, Chapman will be the closer that day. The more manager Joe Girardi sees Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances doing what they’re doing, though – and they’re doing otherworldly things – the tougher it may get to disturb the brilliant stasis.

In nine shutout innings, Betances has five hits, two walks and 22 strikeouts. In other words, nearly 82 percent of Betances’ outs have come via punchout. Miller, slacker he is, has 15 Ks in eight innings with no walks, no runs and just three hits. The guy with the league’s third-highest strikeout rate is a slouch comparatively, and it makes you wonder: How are the Yankees this mediocre even with this bullpen? Well, it certainly doesn’t help when …

5. Alex Rodriguez is batting .132/.233/.245 with 18 strikeouts in 53 at-bats. Only five players in the American League have worse OPSs than Rodriguez: Russell Martin, Austin Jackson, Chase Headley, Ryan Goins and – yikes – Albert Pujols, who as Jon Heyman pointed out has another $165 million or so remaining on his contract through 2021.

A-Rod’s deal stretches through 2017 and will cost the Yankees $20 million this year and next, and at this rate hitting his 700th home run, let alone catching Babe Ruth at 714, is no given. Rodriguez’s swing-and-miss rate has risen to nearly 15 percent this season. Compound that with him missing so many pitches in the strike zone – his contact rate there is 74 percent, the lowest it has been since data was tracked in 2002.

Plenty of players have been left for dead early in the year only to resurrect themselves come May, and let’s remember: The season is barely 10 percent over. Still, the age (40), the seemingly carefree attitude about leaving the ball dead center (12.1 percent of the pitches Rodriguez has seen this season, according to FanGraphs, have been middle-middle) – all of it adds up. And when the Yankees see someone like ...

6. Aledmys Diaz getting almost as many hits in one day as Rodriguez has in three weeks, it at least forces a team to ask. The St. Louis Cardinals, in the meantime, have questions themselves, like: How much longer can we keep alive this tree that sprinkles pixie dust on every long-forgotten never-been who turns into someone worthy of a ballad the moment the birds on the bat adorn his chest?

Aledmys Diaz (AP Photo))
Aledmys Diaz (AP Photo))

First it was Jeremy Hazelbaker, and then Eric Fryer, and now the most important of all, Diaz, a 25-year-old Cuban and the rare one who signed an exceptionally cheap deal. He joined the Cardinals in March 2014 on a four-year, $8 million contract and spent the last two seasons in the minor leagues. He was underwhelming enough that St. Louis designated him for assignment last July. Nobody claimed him.

Not even the Cardinals seemed to understand what lurked. After Jhonny Peralta got hurt, St. Louis traded for Ruben Tejada, tried Jedd Gyorko at shortstop, did everything but hand Diaz the job. He still doesn’t have the full-time gig, even after a 5-for-5 performance Saturday that raised his line to .467/.500/.822. Eleven of his 21 hits are for extra bases, and his glove has been more than adequate, and the Cardinals need every bit of it to catch the Cubs and stave off the Pirates and ...

7. Francisco Cervelli, John Jaso and Gregory Polanco, who headed into Sunday ranked sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively, in NL on-base percentage. The Pirates, in fact, sport a .382 team OBP, the best in baseball by a full 30 points. The worst OBP on the team among regulars, at .341, belongs to Andrew McCutchen, who happens to be a former MVP and the Pirates’ best player.

So how does a team that gets 38 percent of its hitters on base end up at .500 as the end up April approaches? It would help if they could pitch anything like the Cubs or Cardinals. The Pirates actually have a negative run differential this season, their bullpen out of sorts aside from Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz, their rotation more middle of the pack than top tier of the last three seasons.

With former No. 2 pick Jameson Taillon shredding up Triple-A – 16 1/3 innings, 16 strikeouts, zero walks, 1.65 ERA and, says a scout who saw him, “almost back to being himself” – help is but a recall away. And that’s not to mention Tyler Glasnow, whom evaluators think will need a few more months but could be a frightening bullpen weapon come August and September. Pittsburgh has plenty of time, and that’s what …

8. David Price is telling himself, too. As bad as Adam Wainwright and Chris Archer have been to start the season, no pitcher’s ERA is as unsightly as Price’s, mainly because juxtaposing his 7.06 against the $217 million he’s set to make over the next seven years isn’t the finest look.

David Price (Getty Images)
David Price (Getty Images)

Here’s the thing: Price hasn’t given up two baserunners an inning like Archer or put up a 9-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio like Wainwright. His peripherals are promising. Thirty-two strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings is quite good. Same with six walks in that timeframe. The three home runs allowed aren’t great shakes but nothing to lose sleep over. Balls in play are dropping for hits nearly 40 percent of the time, and considering the average exit velocity on Price’s pitches is similar this year (89.4 mph) to last (88 mph), chalking this up to bad luck isn’t a cop-out. It’s probably the truth.

Getting shellacked by the second-worst offense in baseball in Tampa Bay, of course, isn’t exactly a good look, and Price understands that capitalizing on teams’ weaknesses is what great pitchers do. Not that …

9. Tanner Roark is a great pitcher or anything, but what he did against Minnesota on Saturday qualified as capitalizing. Teams pitching to the Twins know one thing: It’s not a bad thing to keep the ball in the strike zone. When it’s there, they swing the second fewest number of times in baseball. And when they do swing, their contact rate is the game’s fifth lowest.

Roark wasn’t entirely in the zone – 78 of his 121 pitches went for strikes – but he lived there enough to capitalize. Going into the game, the Twins had struck out swinging 116 times and taken 28 called third strikes. On Saturday, Roark alone got 10 swinging and five looking. While he’s not the control artist in 2016 that he once was – he had four three-walk games in all of 2014, his last full season starting; he already has three in his first four starts this season – nothing but preying on a weak team indicated this was possible.

During his previous 51 starts, Roark’s career high in strikeouts was 11 – a respectable number. Then came the next best: eight strikeouts. And on and on it went, this guy who punched out 15 Twins having gone 33 of those 51 prior starts with four or fewer strikeouts. Which, honestly, makes you appreciate even more how …

10. Jake Arrieta comes out intent on destruction every time he ascends the mound. Since his first start in 2014, Arrieta has made 62 starts. His ERA is 1.99. He has struck out 429 and walked 95 in 416 2/3 innings. He has allowed 17 home runs. All of these numbers are silly, and they stack up pretty well with Clayton Kershaw, his will-be Cy Young challenger: 64 starts, 1.93 ERA, 570 strikeouts, 76 walks, 461 innings, 26 home runs.

Right there, in lockstep with the best pitcher of his generation, the guy whom the Cubs acquired for a rental of Scott Feldman. It’s like Brock for Broglio getting its cosmic comeuppance 49 years later. (And the Orioles getting theirs, too, for stealing Chris Davis from Texas for Koji Uehara.)

Baltimore, actually, didn’t end up totally lost, with the pitchers finding their greatest success after Adair took a leave of absence in August 2013 and never returned. Britton is one of the five best closers in baseball. Matusz can be an elite left-hander reliever. Tillman is an innings eater who once made an All-Star game. And yet sometimes that consolation prize doesn’t feel like much consolation. Not when the one that got away is making new history every time he touches the ball.