Cubs: Don’t get overly excited about Jake Arrieta’s spring

Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images
Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images /

Plenty of Chicago Cubs fans were thrilled the team brought back veteran hurler Jake Arrieta this offseason, and with good reason.

Arrieta was beloved during his first stint in Chicago, going from a raw, unproven arm with the Baltimore Orioles to a Cy Young winner and eventual World Series champion with the Cubs.

The bearded right-hander really made his name in the Windy City. With the Cubs needing starting pitching help this offseason, many fans were happy to have Arrieta back in the fold.

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Arrieta has also shown some signs of life this spring. He threw 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball Tuesday against the crosstown rival White Sox. The outing lowered Arrieta’s ERA to 2.40 across 15 innings of work in camp.

Cubs fans shouldn’t bet on Jake Arrieta

Cubs fans should not hold their collective breath at the idea Arrieta could actually be a strong No. 3 behind Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies.

There have been positives.

Arrieta’s breaking ball has looked quite sharp at times. He spun off a nasty one to star White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson during Tuesday’s game.

That’s an inherently positive sign for Arrieta. He did his best work (2014-2016) when he was capable of throwing the curveball and slider off his sinking fastball and letting both pitches run away from right-handed hitters.

Arrieta has also shown strong leadership and was a mentor for guys like Adbert Alzolay especially early in camp. But although the ERA is nice and the stuff has looked decent, there is still reason to be skeptical of Arrieta’s success in 2021.

The 35-year-old has managed to be effective despite getting hit fairly hard. Arrieta has given up 14 hits in his 15 innings. He gave up three batted balls over 100 mph in his first start of the spring alone.

Hard contact happens to everyone. But it has been a more concerning trend for Arrieta in the past few seasons because he is not getting swings and misses.

Arrieta has ranked in the 10th percentile or lower in whiff rate in each of the last three seasons, per Baseball Savant. He has also ranked in the 27th percentile in expected slugging (xSLG) in the last two years.

Much of this seems to stem from a decrease in velocity and a slightly flatter sinker. However, the reality Arrieta’s velocity probably isn’t returning anytime soon.

Chicago thinks it can help Arrieta rediscover his old success by getting him to repeat a higher arm slot (subscription required). But just how hard will it be for a guy used to exhibiting his power stuff to become more crafty?

There should still be at least some skepticism regarding Arrieta’s durability, as well.

Executives and baseball personnel are all worried about managing starting arms with the upcoming innings jump coming off a shortened season (subscription required). This feels especially pertinent to guys like Arrieta, who is getting up there in age and has dealt with injuries in each of the last two seasons.

I’m not trying to sound like a downer. Perhaps Arrieta can miss some more bats and continue to pound opponents into the ground.

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But I wouldn’t count on his spring success translating to the regular season.