MESA, Ariz. -- The very thing that helped Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta win the National League Cy Young Award last season might be taken away from him this time around.
Arrieta led the league in complete games with four in 2015, but the Cubs' plan for the soon-to-be 30-year-old is to ratchet his innings down him in order to keep him fresh for the team’s ultimate goal, winning the World Series. Manager Joe Maddon explained part of the plan.
“Possibly not finishing a game with him this year, we finished with him last year in an attempt to save him for the latter part of the season,” Maddon said on Saturday. “Guys like him who have never been through it before, you pretty much feel like you’re invincible. You can do anything.”
But even Arrieta can’t do everything. His large workload in 2015 caught up with him in the postseason. After mowing down hitters in the second half last year -- and then the wild-card game -- he admittedly hit a wall, giving up eight runs in his final two postseason starts. His final game was a killer, losing to the New York Mets in Game 2 of the NLCS, 4-1, after giving up three first-inning runs.
The Cubs' plan for Arrieta this year isn’t a shocker -- they’ve been forecasting it all winter -- but the pitcher’s immediate acceptance of it does come as a bit of a surprise. Like most hurlers, Arrieta never wants to give up the ball and believes those four complete games won him the Cy Young. Second-place finisher, Zack Greinke, had one.
“Last year my mindset was I want the eighth or ninth inning every time out,” Arrieta said, not long after Maddon laid out the plan to reporters. “Looking back on it towards the end of the season, my last two starts specifically, I had a noticeable point there where I could tell I was a little out of gas.”
Arrieta pitched 70-plus more innings in 2015 than in any other year of his career. If not for his incredible conditioning program he probably would have hit the wall sooner, but more than anything he’s putting the team first. Wins and individual awards are nice, but it’s not everything.
“It looks good on paper, but a ring looks a little bit better at the end of November,” Arrieta said. “There’s certain sacrifices that need to be made and I’m more than willing to make those sacrifices to be better for my team later in the season.”
Make no mistake, this is a change in Arrieta, who openly disagreed with then-manager Rick Renteria in 2014 when the club wanted to hold him back in spring training after shoulder stiffness during the winter. Maybe the club was proved right that year, considering Arrieta burst onto the national scene after missing April. Then came last year’s historic season, which produced the lowest second-half ERA (0.75) ever.
“I look at the numbers saying I don’t know if the second-half ERA will ever be broken,” Arrieta stated. “The way the game is going, I don’t know if that mark will ever be trumped.”
And so Arrieta is adhering to what the club wants, but this time he isn’t going kicking and screaming. He’s on board with the plan, which Maddon might have to remind him about during a mid-season game when Arrieta’s competitive juices are telling him to finish what he started.
“My job should be a bit easier in regards to harnessing him a bit during the regular season,” Maddon said.
Good luck with that, but the manager can always reference the “open and frank” conversation they had this spring when the pitcher agreed with the plan. It may not come to that, of course, considering Arrieta wants to be fresh for the stretch run as much as anyone else wants him to be.
“As nice as it is to complete games as a starter, it’s even nicer to pitch meaningful innings in October,” he said. “As I now know from last year’s experiences.”
Maddon says he has similar plans for veterans Jon Lester and John Lackey, both of whom made all their starts last season. The overall plan is starting to come into focus as the team will rely on its bullpen, which is deeper than it’s been in a few years. The Cubs can rotate arms back there to keep the starters fresh, especially Arrieta.
“Jake probably needs the most attention, based on the jump from last year,” Maddon said. “Even if he had not hit the wall, we still want to do it, anyway. The significant jump in innings pitched is unusual.”