I am not possessed of enough superlatives to adequately describe what Jake Arrieta did on the mound this season, so I’ll just say that he pitched really, really good. Or well. Whatever. Another way to say that is that he was swell, which is also what he created as the Cubs rode his right arm throughout the second half of the season. I’ve watched a fair bit of baseball and I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything quite like stretch Arrieta had this season.
In truth, no one has really seen anything quite like it, as his 0.75 ERA in the second half is the best in MLB history. Though Arrieta had flashed brilliance at times in the past, there was no way to prepare for the all-encompassing domination he routinely displayed through the late summer and into fall. Rare is the case when you know exactly what you’re going to get every time out from a player, particularly in a sport with as much day-to-day volatility as baseball.
In 15 starts after the All-Star break, Arrieta allowed 2 or more earned runs only 3 times. Twice he allowed a single earned run. You may already be ahead of me on the math here, but this means that the bearded Texan allowed zero earned runs in two-thirds of his second-half starts, a run that closed with him avoiding an earned run in 7 of 9 starts. When Arrieta took the bump, you just knew he was going to be great.
Never was he greater than during a nationally televised game against the Dodgers that would close out a brief West Coast swing. The Cubs had opened the trip with a win in San Francisco in which Arrieta had thrown 6 innings of 4-hit, 1-run ball, but then proceeded to drop the next 4 (2 each to the Giants and Dodgers). While they still had the inside track to a playoff spot, the short jag had people feeling as though the grip was a bit tenuous. Enter Jake Arrieta.
With the eyes of the baseball world upon him, Arrieta stepped onto the mound in the muggy evening air of Chavez Ravine to ply his trade. From the start, it was evident that there was something special about the game, that we had a chance to witness history. The air crackled with expectant energy as the pitch count went up while the Dodgers’ hit count remained stagnant. By the time he had thrown his 116th pitch, Arrieta had logged a no-hitter with only one walk and one error blemishing perfection.
It wasn’t the most dominant Cubs pitching performance we’ve seen (Kerry Wood’s 20-K game stands out in that regard), but it was the largest gem among the many Arrieta twirled. In all, he ended the season with a 22 wins, a 1.77 ERA, and 236 strikeouts over 229 innings pitched; all were career highs. His walk rate (5.5%), ground ball rate (56.2%), and WHIP (0.86) were all career-best marks as well.
A masterful complete-game shutout in the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh capped off Arrieta’s incredible season. He would, of course, go on to make two more postseason starts, but neither was very memorable. In allowing 8 earned runs over only 10 2/3 innings against the Cards and Mets, the Cubs’ ace looked thoroughly mortal. He also looked somewhat enervated, diminished somehow.
Was it the innings count, which by the Cards game was more than 80 above his previous career high? Maybe it was simply a long-overdue period of regression. Whatever the case, the fairietta tale came to an unsatisfying end in mid-October as the Cubs fell to the Mets. Still, marking this breakout season down on the basis of two postseason starts (no matter how valuable they may have been) seems a bit unreasonable.
Both Arrieta and the Cubs were in relatively uncharted territory this season and the role he played in getting the team to 97 wins and a playoff berth cannot be quantified by mere numbers. Arrieta’s greatest contribution may have been in the confidence he instilled in his own team, not to mention that which he took from his opponent. Not only did you know the Cubs were going to win when he had the ball, you had a sense that there was an opportunity to see something incredible, to see Jake Arrieta great again.
There’s a non-zero chance that we’ll never see another season like this again, but even a more normalized performance in 2016 should be more than enough to help the Cubs maintain what they built this season. I don’t hand out perfect grades lightly, but I can’t imagine giving out anything less to Arrieta.
Final grade: A+