The remarkably unpredictable Jake Arrieta gave the Cubs life in NLCS vs. Dodgers

Consistency is boring. Sure, every GM on the planet would sell their soul to nab a hitting metronome like Joey Votto and drop him into the middle of his team’s lineup. But sports are most fun when your range of outcomes sways from thrilling success to spectacular failure. The players who can do both, sometimes in the very same game, are the ones we can’t stop watching.

The Cubs‘ nail-biting 3-2 win in Game 4 of the NLCS was noteworthy for a few reasons. First, it staved off elimination for Chicago. Second, it featured one of the most stupefyingly silly displays of umpiring you’ll ever see, with Curtis Granderson’s whiffed strike three somehow getting overturned (without the benefit of replay) to a foul tip, making everyone at Wrigley wish we could just junk umpires entirely and go to total Calvinball rules. Third, it featured not one but two home runs from Javy Baez, the give-zero-f’s infield dynamo who was 0 for 20 coming into this game, then won over the fans so convincingly, 41,000-plus chanted his name over and over. (There’s a 90 million-word essay on Baez coming some time soon on how damn fun Baez is. He’s absolutely electrifying.)  

But the biggest reason the Cubs are a game away from sending the series back to Los Angeles is that they have one of the highest-variance pitchers in the league on their roster. And he was absolutely scintillating on Wednesday night.

To understand the depths of Jake Arrieta’s unpredictability, you can probably just start here. (Apologies in advance to Orioles fans.)

As Tom Verducci detailed in his excellent book, The Cubs Way, Arrieta didn’t lack talent in his O’s days, not with a screaming fastball and a sharp-breaking slider. His problem was that he had no idea where his pitches were going. Arrieta used (and still uses) a crossfire delivery, and everyone from pitching coaches to scouts believe (rightfully so) that throwing across your body leaves a pitcher vulnerable to injuries, and lots of bad outcomes. The Cubs believed they could harness Arrieta’s talent, plus his hellacious work ethic and fitness habits, and make him the outlier pitcher who could succeed with that risky and unorthodox pitching motion.

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That gamble has paid off brilliantly. Arrieta finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times as a Cub, with his masterpiece the 22-6, 1.77 ERA 2015 season that nudged him just ahead of world-beaters Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to claim the hardware that year. But even at the top of his game, Arrieta has thrown down some clunkers. He ran out of gas in the 2015 postseason, posting a 6.75 ERA in the NLCS and World Series. Then in 2016 he posted the lowest hit rate in the league, only to throw up another stinker in the NLCS, then respond by dominating in his two World Series starts, just when the Cubs needed him most. Then this season, we saw Arrieta go through an early-season stretch where he allowed 22 runs and 33 hits in 20 innings… and a nine-start run late in the year in which he never allowed more than two runs in a start.

So when Arrieta opened his 2017 postseason by lasting just four innings (with five walks) against the Nationals in the NLDS, you didn’t know what he and his funky delivery would produce the next time out. Another clunker? A 27-strikeout perfect game?

Much closer to the latter than the former, as it turned out. Arrieta still struggled at times to find the plate, issuing another five free passes on the night. But he also punched out nine Dodgers, going 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on three hits, and firing every one of his 111 pitches with the back-of-mind knowledge that the relievers behind him consisted of Wade Davis, a pack of Big League Chew, and the remains of Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. He found success with his curveball in Game 4, throwing 24 after having thrown just eight his last time out. 

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Our ace pitching correspondent Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com offered more detail on Arrieta’s success, and the razor’s edge he walks with his funky delivery:

Pitching coaches take a look at Jake Arrieta’s mechanics and they cringe. It hurts. It’s not his arm action or his shoulders that trigger them, but his landing foot that makes Arrieta a great example for what aspiring pitchers should not do. Take a look at it in action:

Arrieta’s stride doesn’t take him on a straight line to the plate, but rather he steps closer to third base into a closed position. This forces Arrieta to throw what’s called “across his body,” with his arm action travelling from east-to-west. It’s the reason Arrieta goes through phases where he looks unhittable, and others where he can’t find the plate.

Pitching coaches hate this because of the small margin of error it creates. Normally, pitchers throw “north-to-south,” as their arm action and release is more over the top. This allows the location of the pitch not to be a product of timing – the moment they release the ball as they throw to the plate – but rather where their momentum is taking them as they stride to the target. Throwing across your body as Arrieta does forces him to release at just the right moment, like trying to throw a football through a moving tire-swing. He may have the feel for a few pitches, but the swing’s speed changes the next time and his accuracy is way off.

But there are benefits to these mechanics. Arrieta gains an extra element of deception, hiding the ball behind his body for a longer period of time. There’s also the added element of intimidation to consider, with Arrieta’s release point often coming from behind the backs of right-handed hitters. Most importantly, though, is the added movement on Arrieta’s pitches. By coming across the ball at such an extreme angle, Arrieta is able to get extra horizontal movement on his all his pitches, which we got a great look at tonight against Cody Bellinger:

It’s a give and take for Arrieta. When he has his feel, there’s little batters can do to survive. When he’s off, pitch sail up, dive into the dirt, or end up catching way too much of the plate. With his cross-body mechanics, on any given pitch, we just don’t know if Arrieta’s going to squeeze the ball through the swing.

When Arrieta walked off the mound with two outs in the seventh inning, the Wrigley faithful gave him a thunderous standing ovation. The fans saluted Arrieta’s stellar effort in a win-or-go-home game. They applauded Arrieta’s four and a half years of excellence in Chicago, with Game 4 possibly his last time in a Cubs uniform, if the Dodgers win this series and Arrieta leaves via free agency this winter. A few of them might’ve even tipped their caps for this display of brilliance.

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Let’s hope they also appreciated how Arrieta has pulled off a minor miracle. The delivery that would get most pitchers demoted to Abu Dhabi has somehow worked. And the pitcher who can serve up nine runs, or nine innings of no runs on any given night, came up one last huge, unpredictable masterpiece.

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