In 2015, a year before they overcame the curse, the Chicago Cubs were, on paper at least, a bunch of scrappy outsiders. The hiring of Joe Maddon, the free agent signing of Jon Lester and the emergence of prospects like Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell prompted Sports Illustrated to predict they’d win 82 games that year – nine more than they won in 2014.
What actually happened though exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic of Cubs fans. The ‘Lovable Losers’ went 97-65, securing their first NLCS berth since 2003.
And while Maddon fostered a positive clubhouse culture, Lester brought experience to the rotation, Bryant slashed .275/.366/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI, and Anthony Rizzo led the team in home runs (31) and OPS (.899), it was Jake Arrieta, who announced his retirement last week, who was ultimately the key to their success.
The slider-cutter hybrid
Arrieta entered the 2015 season off the back of a breakout campaign in which he went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.989 WHIP. Over the course of the season he recorded a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 4-to-1 while allowing just five homers in 156.2 innings.
The reclamation project who’d spent four years floundering in the Orioles’ system worked with Cubs’ pitching coach Chris Bosio to transform himself into an ace, overcoming an unsightly 5.46 ERA that ranked fourth highest among all pitchers who threw at least 300 innings between 2010-2012.
The key to his success was, in the words of Jorge L. Ortiz in USA Today, the emergence of a “slider-cutter hybrid whose direction is virtually indistinguishable — he grips it the same way and throws it from the same arm slot — until just before it reaches the plate”.
The versatile action made it seem as if he had three different sliders in his arsenal with an average velocity that ranged between 84 mph and 94 mph. As Eno Sarris pointed out on Fan Graphs, “Arrieta prefers more horizontal movement against opposite-handed pitchers, and less drop” while increasing the break against righties, particularly with two strikes.
A vintage year
The pitch made Arrieta virtually unhittable that year as he recorded a 1.77 ERA, 0.865 WHIP, 236 K, and 2.35 FIP line in 229.0 innings. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield points out in his article charting the ‘21 most iconic MLB seasons of the 21st century… so far’:
“Arrieta was 6-5 in mid-June, but then he began an extended run of dominance that matched the best in history. Over his final 20 starts, he went 16-1 with a 0.86 ERA in 147 innings, including a no-hitter at Dodger Stadium. He allowed just two home runs over that stretch and held batters to a .150/.200/.210 line.”
As he also states, Arrieta “joined Bob Gibson as the second pitcher in 100 years to go 8-0 with a sub-0.50 ERA over eight starts,” helping him pip the likes of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Gerrit Cole to the National League Cy Young Award.
It was a dominant season for the righty, one that included four complete games, three of which were shutouts, and that monumental 12-strikeout no-hitter against the Dodgers that made him the first Cubs pitcher to record a no-no since September 2008, when Carlos Zambrano locked one down against the Houston Astros.
Whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know, it doesn’t matter
Having defied all expectations, the Cubs found themselves facing off against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park in the NL Wild Card. Despite winning 97 games, they still had to take the backdoor into the playoffs because division rivals the St. Louis Cardinals (100 wins) and the Pirates (98 wins) were the only other two teams in baseball to win more games in 2015.
With ace Gerrit Cole on the mound, the Pirates’ hometown fans were feeling confident and one even decided it would be a good idea to goad Arrieta, whose regular season performance had earned him the start, on Twitter.
“Be ready for the sea of black #BlackOut #BUCN #crowdIsGoingToEatYoualive #walkTheplank,” the since deleted tweet read, prompting Arrieta to respond:
Of course, it only served as fuel to the fire, as Arrieta plunked two Pirates while striking out 11 en route to a four-hit shutout in the Cubs’ most important game in the best part of a decade. It was a feisty, fiery affair too, one that even saw both benches empty after Pirates reliever Tony Watson threw at Arrieta in retaliation in the top of the seventh. The subsequent skirmish, during which Sean Rodriguez was ejected after throwing a punch at David Ross, wasn’t enough to put Arrieta off his stride and he even stole second base in the immediate aftermath, becoming just the fifth pitcher to steal a base in a playoff game since 1908.
The Cubs went on to beat the Cardinals in the NLDS before getting swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS. While that was an ultimately unsatisfying end to a memorable season, the team finished the season a minor retool away from one of the most historic World Series wins of all time and in Arrieta they had an ace who would go 18-8 with a 3.10 ERA, a 1.084 WHIP and a 3.52 FIP in 2016 while also notching two huge wins in the 2016 World Series.
‘It’s just my time’
Last year’s one-year, $6 million, 6.88 ERA return to Wrigley Field and the Cubs’ rotation after a three-year absence was nothing short of a disaster for Arrieta. And yet as the outpouring of affection prompted by his retirement announcement proved, neither it nor his controversial opinions on vaccines were enough to tarnish the reputation he built on the North Side.
Between 2014 and 2017, he went 64-29 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.028 WHIP while playing an integral role in ending the Cubs’ World Series drought.
And for that, he’ll always have a place in Chicago Cubs lore.
Photo by Mike Zarrilli via Getty Images
Sean is one of the Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondents for the 2022 season. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest