If the Cubs win a World Series with their current, Epstein-engineered core, the world will never tire of retelling the story of the 2015 team. First we’ll get the quickie cash-in books, and then the longer, behind-the-scenes books about team-building, and then the documentaries and screenplays — maybe even a biopic about baseball’s most accomplished curse breaker. And all of the accounts and descriptions disseminated will likely have one thing in common: They’ll focus on the position players.
It’ll be hard to blame them, since there’s so much offensive fodder: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler — maybe even Javier Baez, depending on how his second September goes. Those are the guys we’ve been waiting for, the former top prospects who fit the stories we want to tell about the Cubs: that they rescued themselves from long-term losing and mismanagement by investing in positional prospects (a dependable commodity compared to young pitchers), and that they’re almost obscenely well stocked with hitters in the first half of their twenties. Some of those guys will be great for a decade to come, and the longer they last, the easier it will be to draw the connection between their debuts and the Cubs’ change of fortunes.
There’s some truth to that narrative. Rizzo’s excellent slash line (.284/.391/.528) is almost a perfect facsimile of his 2014 performance (.286/.386/.527), but the more recent arrivals, particularly Schwarber and Bryant, have given the Cubs a boost relative to last year. Cubs hitters, who were already preciously patient, have made strides in August, both literally and figuratively, producing a higher Isolated Power this month than even the Mets and the Blue Jays, who’ve added important pieces to their lineups. Even so, the Cubs rank 10th in the majors in both batter WAR and non-pitcher wRC+ for the full season (sixth and seventh, respectively, in the NL). But they rank fourth in the majors (and third in the NL) in pitcher WAR. Relative to the rest of the league, the Cubs’ greatest strength has been on the mound, not in the batter’s box.
The Cubs didn’t draft that strength — 10 pitchers have made starts for Joe Maddon this season, and only one1 was drafted by the Cubs — but it was on full display in their win in Los Angeles on Sunday, which ended a four-game losing streak and lengthened the team’s lead over the Giants to 5.5 games in the race for the NL’s second wild card. Yes, Bryant took Dodgers starter Alex Wood deep, driving in the team’s only two runs in the top of the first, but that slim lead held up thanks to Cubs starter Jake Arrieta, who kept the Dodgers hitless in 116 pitches while walking only one and whiffing 12, including all three hitters he faced in the ninth.
Like almost all no-hitters, Arrieta’s easily could’ve turned into a one- or two-hitter. The third-inning error Starlin Castro committed on a hard-hit, short-hop grounder by Enrique Hernandez might have been ruled a hit on a different day or in another ballpark, as Arrieta admitted after the game.
And had the Cubs not recently embraced the inevitable, optimizing their middle-infield defense by swapping Castro and Russell, the two might have had trouble retiring Carl Crawford and Hernandez, respectively, on tough plays in the seventh and eighth. But Arrieta’s hitless start was less luck-dependent than most.
Arrieta was the opposing pitcher when Cole Hamels no-hit the Cubs in late July. I wrote then that Arrieta was “already regarded as unhittable in a way that Hamels hasn’t been.” He’s only reinforced that reputation over the intervening month, during which he’s been the hottest pitcher on the NL’s hottest team. Entering Sunday, only Zack Greinke, Sonny Gray, Clayton Kershaw, and Jacob deGrom had allowed fewer hits per batter faced than Arrieta this season. Now, only Greinke stands between Arrieta and the distinction of being baseball’s most unhittable pitcher — and quite possibly winning the Cy Young.
Arrieta entered August with a 2.62 ERA and has lowered it by almost half a run over the course of the month, allowing only four runs (two earned) in 42.1 innings over six starts, with 43 strikeouts and 10 walks. The no-hitter marked his 14th straight start of at least six innings pitched and three or fewer runs allowed, a feat no Cubs pitcher has matched since Greg Maddux’s first Cy Young year (1992) and no Cubs pitcher has exceeded since Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander had a 15-start streak during the waning days of the dead ball era. Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, and Tyson Ross, who was pitching in Petco, were the only pitchers with streaks of at least 14 such starts last season. The Cubs have lost only one of Arrieta’s past 12 starts, and that was the day of Hamels’s no-hitter. These days, an opposing pitcher pretty much has to be perfect to beat Arrieta, and on Sunday, even that wouldn’t have worked. As a result, Maddon’s already planned team pajama party started at the postgame presser.
Like the Mets’ deGrom, Arrieta broke out — and came close to no-hitters — in 2014, posting Cy Young–caliber stats in something less than a full season (25 starts for Arrieta, 22 for deGrom). There was nothing unsustainable about his stats, but his age — he turned 29 in March — and track record of inconsistency despite good stuff fostered some skepticism about his ability to repeat the performance in 2015. Like deGrom, he hasn’t regressed. The mechanical adjustments he made last season have stuck, and so has his improved cutter/slider, a pitch that defies classification because Arrieta can make it more slider-like or more cutter-like, depending on the opponent.
Arrieta tends to throw the cutter/slider down and in to lefties and down and away to righties.
On Sunday, the Dodgers started seven lefties or switch-hitters against Arrieta, and he located 20 of the 30 sliders he threw them on the inner and lower halves of the zone, where he collected eight of the nine strikeouts he recorded with the pitch. The cutter/slider, which Arrieta started using much more in his second season in Chicago, has helped him limit lefties to a .471 OPS this season, the lowest mark among 125 pitchers who’ve faced at least 150 lefties this season. It’s impossible not to point out that the Orioles, Arrieta’s original team, are on record as anti-cutter, a one-size-fits-all policy that may have helped the Cubs steal Arrieta and bullpen stalwart Pedro Strop for Steve Clevenger and impending free agent Scott Feldman in July 2013. The O’s are trailing in the AL wild-card scrum by 5.5 games, the same margin by which the Cubs are leading their race, largely because Baltimore has failed to develop a starter of close to Arrieta’s caliber. To add to the Orioles’ remorse, Arrieta — who’s in line for a large arbitration raise but won’t reach free agency until after 2017 — is still adding velocity, and his increased use of the sinker at the expense of the four-seamer has given him one of the top 10 ground ball rates among qualified starters.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers, who’ve been no-hit twice in a 10-day span — the shortest time between no-hitters since 1923 — can console themselves with the thought that they were playing without Yasiel Puig, who’d seemed to have found his stroke before a hamstring strain sent him back to the DL last week. As Jeff Sullivan noted last week, the Dodgers have scored fewer runs than their underlying stats suggest they should have, which Sullivan blamed on bad baserunning, bad timing, and an inability to reach base on errors (which is a persistent skill). None of those weaknesses was at work on Sunday: When a team goes hitless, stranding runners isn’t the primary problem.
Only one team (the 1917 White Sox) has won a World Series after being no-hit twice in a season, but not many teams are no-hit twice, and not many teams win the World Series. More recently, the Rays won the AL East in 2010 despite being held hitless twice. It’s unusual for this to happen to any team, let alone one as good as the Dodgers. But if any one of a few balls last night had been hit a few feet farther away from a fielder, we wouldn’t make much of it. The Dodgers don’t hit for a particularly high average, and they score a higher percentage of their runs on homers than any other NL team (which isn’t an issue in October). Two lousy games don’t tell us anything about them that we didn’t already know. They do remind us, though, that while Don Mattingly’s lineups aren’t the primary cause of L.A.’s offensive malaise, they’re the opposite of a solution. The only hitters to face Arrieta four times on Sunday were Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, who haven’t been good candidates to lead off and bat second since roughly 2007. Batting order doesn’t make or break many teams, but as long as they have two shells of former Phillies at the top of their lineup, the Dodgers are giving away outs.
But the Cubs’ out-getting doesn’t depend on rival managers making mistakes. As predictably good as Bryant has been, and as gratifyingly aggressive as the Cubs have been in promoting Russell and Schwarber, Arrieta is the player most responsible for the Cubs’ slightly-ahead-of-schedule success. This spring, I was one of the moderate doubters who thought the Cubs would be much better but were still one year — and probably one pitcher — away from the playoffs, even after signing Jon Lester and bringing back Jason Hammel. I was optimistic about Arrieta, but not optimistic enough.
A little more than a month from now, the Cubs and Pirates are almost certain to face off in the NL wild-card game, even though Pittsburgh has been five games better than Chicago thus far. Very few starters could turn the Pirates, backed by Gerrit Cole, into underdogs. Arrieta is looking like one of them.