It’s no coincidence that in the afterglow of Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter Sunday night at Dodger Stadium, manager Joe Maddon remembered the role played by pitching coach Chris Bosio and what team president Theo Epstein calls the Cubs’ “pitching infrastructure.”
That’s a big part of why Arrieta is a Cub at all. It might be a bigger part of why Arrieta was allowed to flourish in a way he never could in Baltimore.
And it might be the biggest factor over the final 30 games in how much noise the Cubs make down the stretch toward October.
“Boz has been an instrumental member of the organization since he’s been here,” Epstein said, noting, in part, the work he’s done to raise value on one-year restore-and-flip guys such as Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel — which the organization has been able to turn, through trades, into Tommy La Stella (via Arodys Vizcaino), Arrieta, Pedro Strop and Addison Russell.
“Boz, [bullpen coach] Lester Strode and [catching/strategy coach] Mike Borzello work well together and have helped create a pitching infrastructure we lean on every day, whether it’s game-planning through the grind of the season or allowing us to buy low on certain pitchers to create value.”
It has come into play in a big way this season as the Cubs took a 6 ½-game lead in the race for the National League’s final playoff spot into Thursday’s off day – despite pitching depth held together by Band-Aid acquisitions, extra bullpen arms, early hooks and duct tape.
It starts with Bosio, who came in, along with Borzello, when longtime friend Dale Sveum was hired to manage in 2012, and was considered vital enough to Epstein’s plan to stick after Sveum was fired two seasons later – along the way attracting overtures from at least a half-dozen teams, including the Phillies, Pirates and Twins.
“His best asset is understanding that each guy has their own game plan,” said Hammel, who bonded so strongly before his trade to Oakland last season that he lobbied hard, at a discount, to return as a free agent this season. “He doesn’t try to create a robot.”
For Hammel, an avid golfer, that often means talking about delivery/mechanics issues in golf terms. “He understands how to get out of the baseball mind and into something else to relate,” Hammel said.
Hammel, Arrieta and Hendricks all talk about the staff culture that caters to individuals. With simple expectations that apply to everyone: throwing strikes, aggressiveness.
And following a game plan based on Borzello’s especially detailed charts of hitters’ weaknesses in every conceivable count and game situation, against righties, lefties or certain pitch types. Borzello pores over statistics and cross references to video.
“Why it works so well is pitchers can pick their two or three strengths out there, but you don’t have to use them all,” Hendricks said. “There’s eight options at all times you could use to go attack this hitter.”
And that’s for every sequence – every pitch.
“It’s a huge deal for us, especially the type of guys like myself, who love going into the scouting report, and who kind of need it.”
It seems to be working, whether it’s Borzello’s charts, Strode’s expertise in mechanics or Bosio’s authority as an 11-year starting pitcher with 15-win seasons, playoff starts and a no-hitter – along with nearly two decades scouting and coaching at all levels.
And there’s little chance the Cubs would be anywhere near a playoff sniff without that part of the coaching and pitching management on the big-league level, considering the Cubs haven’t come close yet to producing a big-league pitcher acquired as an amateur by the current regime.
Bosio said the communication up the chain, through Maddon, general manager Jed Hoyer and Epstein’s office has been critical in what he, Strode and Borzello have been able to do.
And he’s quick to credit the pitchers for their own success – and to credit staffers such as researcher Jeremy Greenhouse, video analyst Nao Masamoto and scouts Nate Halm and Tommy Hottovy (the former big-league pitcher).
But it’s clear who runs this “pitching infrastructure.”
“Boz has a powerful personality and determined approach that has left its mark on the organization,” Epstein said. “He’s a force of nature.”
His mark? Bosio and his staff not only got major bounce-back seasons out of all three flip-guy free agents the front office handed him the past three seasons, to acquire the players listed earlier.
They also helped Jeff Samardzija transform from middle reliever to workhorse starting pitcher – Oakland’s centerpiece in last year’s trade for Russell.
And they helped maximize the value of holdover veterans Ryan Dempster (2.25 ERA through 16 starts in 2012) and Matt Garza (6-1, 3.17 in ’13) just ahead of trades to the Rangers – netting Hendricks in the first one and Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez and Mike Olt in the second.
When right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. makes his anticipated debut this month, it’ll make all four from that trade becoming big-league contributors for the Cubs.
Assuming the Cubs hold their position in September, it also means those trades, along with the flip-guy deals, will have produced two starting pitchers (Arrieta, Hendricks), the top two setup men (Grimm, Strop), the starting shortstop (Russell) and a key bench player (La Stella) for Epstein’s first playoff team in Chicago.
As for Bosio, Strode and Borzello, none even knew much about each other before joining forces in 2012.
“It clicks, it works,” said Bosio, of what he considers a unique synergy. “We can say anything to each other, add or subtract anything on the fly, during the game.
“But the No. 1 thing is the results. We’ve got to have the results.”
Through five months, the results have almost defied logic, especially in a rotation with almost no depth from the start. Nobody from the original five has gone on the DL this year – underscored by Bosio’s work with Hammel to keep him contributing during a nagging leg injury that lasted more than a month.
The pitching staff as a whole leads the National League in strikeouts, has issued the fourth-lowest total of walks, has the third-ranked WHIP and – despite a raw, flawed defense behind it — ranks seventh in the majors with a 3.59 ERA.
“And we’re hoping for more,” Bosio said.
They may need to dig deep for more to see this thing through the end of the season, much less to late October, the way some of the staff has shown its wear over the last month.
But they have September roster reinforcements. And a plan. Always a plan.
“We had no connection, none of us,” Bosio said of his three-man pitching department. “We started this thing together, and we all want to see this thing through until we’re getting fitted for rings.
“And being mainstays. Not one-year wonders.”