Everybody has a beard these days, so that couldn’t have been the secret to Jake Arrieta’s success in 2015. Pilates? That’s a stretch. Kale juice? For the sake of clubhouses everywhere, let’s hope not; drinking the stuff in excess can cause bad gas.
Let’s go with some combination of all three, an amalgam of factors that, along with four wicked pitches, turned into gold for the Arrieta last season. He won the National League Cy Young Award on Wednesday night, as he should have. No pitcher, not runner-up Zack Greinke or third-place finisher Clayton Kershaw, was more valuable to his team.
Arrieta was the biggest reason for the Cubs’ 24-victory improvement from the season before. Without him, there is no wild-card game, no defeat of the Cardinals in an N.L. Division Series and no appearance in the championship series.
“To do what we did as an organization this year is really incredibly special,’’ Arrieta said. “It’s something that we just continue to look to build on.’’
The postseason honors for Arrieta and other Cubs also come with some wistfulness, of what might have been, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Arrieta set a major-league record with a 0.75 earned-run average in the second half of the season. Dominant doesn’t begin to describe his year and what it meant to the Cubs.
He knew opponents couldn’t hit him, and they knew they couldn’t hit him. That went not just for the no-hitter he threw against the Dodgers on Aug. 30 but pretty much for every start he made. He went 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA.
“Nobody’s seen it,’’ manager Joe Maddon said during the NLCS. “To watch this on an everyday basis, it’s unreal sometimes.’’
The Cubs took the first three major awards in the N.L. – Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), Manager of the Year (Maddon) and Cy Young. I don’t want to say there’s something empty about that triple crown because there can’t be a whole lot of emptiness in being the best at what you do. But if the main goal is to win a World Series, they are consolation prizes.
That’s where the wistfulness comes in.
If you’re a White Sox fan, which team means more to you: The 1983 squad with the American League Rookie of the Year (Ron Kittle), the A.L. Manager of the Year (Tony La Russa) and the A.L. Cy Young Award winner (LaMarr Hoyt), or the 2005 edition, which won the World Series with only manager Ozzie Guillen winning an award? I’m guessing the team that gave the franchise its first championship in 88 years.
You take what you’re given, of course, and in this case, the awards are further acknowledgment that what happened for the Cubs last season was special. But more importantly, they point to hope, that limitless natural resource on the North Side. If last season was excellent, it follows that next season has to be better. That’s how human nature works. It doesn’t mean it’s how events will unfold, but you get the idea.
White Sox fans were full of hope after their team lost to Baltimore in the 1983 ALCS. But the next season, the reigning manager of the year led his team to a 74-88 finish, Hoyt went 13-18 with a 4.47 ERA and Kittle hit .215 with 32 homers and 74 RBI.
OK, no one is in the mood for that kind of reality, not weeks after a brilliant season and not with the Cubs expected to mine the free-agent market for pitchers to go along with Arrieta and Jon Lester. And this team is younger than that Sox team was. But it’s just a reminder that, after the awards are handed out, nothing is promised for the following season.
Nobody is more aware of that than Arrieta, who is a health and workout fanatic. Maddon has said his ace is as “in shape as anybody that’s ever played this game.’’ But Arrieta threw about 75 more innings in the regular season than he ever had before, and his stamina flagged after he won the wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh.
“The fatigue did set in — I mean, I’ll be the first to tell you,’’ he said. “But physically my body was in better shape that it’s ever been. There was nothing alarming to me. It was just something that is very comparable to dead arm. It’s something that a lot of pitchers get in spring training.’’
Count on more hard work in the offseason.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,’’ he said.
Uh-oh, National League. And beyond.