Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Arrieta: ‘This is where I wanted to be’
Veteran is ‘really excited’ to return after 2 injury-marred seasons with the Phillies
When Jake Arrieta left the Chicago Cubs to embark on a new chapter in his career with the Philadelphia Phillies, he already had experienced the highest of highs on an individual and team level.
It’s hard to do much better than a Cy Young Award, two no-hitters and a World Series title to end a 107-year drought for the franchise in a 4½season span. Arrieta could have been content to leave that as his Cubs legacy. Instead, as he navigated free agency for the second time in his career, a reunion with the Cubs ultimately felt like the right fit for the 34-year-old right-hander.
“This is where I wanted to be,” Arrieta said Saturday in a teleconference from Mesa, Ariz. “Just the past few days here, it just feels right, it feels like yesterday. Sometimes we might take time for granted a little bit too much. But the last three years have gone by pretty quickly. I’m just really excited to be with this group again.”
The reunion took time to develop during the offseason. Arrieta had several conversations with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and others within the organization, including players, manager David Ross, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and bullpen coach Chris Young, who served as the Phillies assistant pitching coach and then the pitching coach during Arrieta’s first two seasons in Philadelphia. The Yu Darvish trade and Jon Lester signing with the Nationals helped pave a way back to Chicago.
Arrieta is a believer that every bigleaguer has something to prove, regardless of where he is at in his career.
“Not that that’s in a negative way,” Arrieta said. “It’s really just to prove that I’m still capable of performing at a high level, the level that I expect to perform at. The last three years weren’t to my expectations.
“There were some slight physical limitations, but having said that, I didn’t perform the way I was capable of. But I have a lot in the tank, I have a lot to still accomplish in this game and I’m excited that it’s going to happen in this Cub uniform again.”
Arrieta pointed to variations in his delivery and mechanics as a byproduct of those physical limitations. He was hampered by a torn meniscus in 2018, bone spurs in his elbow in 2019 and a hamstring strain in 2020, all of which ended his seasons prematurely. He finished his Phillies career with a 4.36 ERA, 1.387 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 and a 99 ERA+ in 64 starts.
Staying healthy is key for Arrieta to avoid developing bad habits. Trying to pitch through injuries the last couple of years contributed to an irregular arm slot, affecting Arrieta’s effectiveness. He explained how he was more on the side of the baseball with his arm angle, and his offspeed stuff didn’t possess the depth or late movement as he was used to seeing.
Arrieta already has been working with the Cubs staff to watch video and make adjustments to his delivery. He plans to check out the Cubs’ pitching lab in a couple of days to see what the numbers say, then apply pieces of information to workout or bullpen routines.
“I don’t necessarily think I’m going to be 97-98 (mph) anymore, and that’s completely fine,” Arrieta said. “That’s just kind of the natural progression of your career. And as you get a little bit older, some of those attributes might decline slightly, but I think my ability to perform at a similar level is still there. I’m healthy. I’ve got a good support system around me as well as fantastic teammates and I’m just really excited about that.
“If I can get that delivery back to where it was, I think the results can be very close to where they were in ‘15, ‘16, ‘17.”
Arrieta and the Cubs are saying all the right things about his return. His production with the Phillies the previous three years was marred by injuries, though, making it tougher to project what version the Cubs will get in 2021. He was pitching well leading up to the hamstring strain he suffered during what became his final start of the 2020 season in mid-September. They need him to consistently pitch into the sixth inning for this rotation to be what the Cubs envision. Arrieta’s health the X-factor.
As the veteran on the staff, Arrieta looks to have an impact off the mound. Right-hander Adbert Alzolay has already benefitted from his prescence. Arrieta estimated he has spent at least an hour talking to Alzolay every day for the past week.
The two played catch the last few days, and Arrieta stayed after his bullpen session Friday to watch Alzolay’s. Arrieta noted the rookie loves talking about pitching and he enjoys answering Alzolay’s questions. Arrieta said Alzolay is “hungry for knowledge.”
Arrieta values being approachable and how that part of his role comes with the territory at this stage of a career. His insight could be valuable for the Cubs’ less experienced pitchers.
“I kind of set the tone in the room early on: I want these guys to understand and to know that they can come to me at any time,” Arrieta said. “Whether it’s something personal, something baseball related, it doesn’t matter to me.”