Jake 2.0? Arrieta confident he can reinvent himself and thrive in second stint with Cubs

“I still have great stuff, but don’t necessarily need the stuff that I used to have in order to pitch well,” Arrieta said.

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John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jake Arrieta is no stranger to reality. In fact, he embraces it. Baseball since its inception has been considered a game of adjustments, and for the 35-year-old right-hander this spring has been just that.

When Arrieta was going through free agency before ultimately signing a one-year, $6 million deal with the Cubs, he knew he needed to do two things:

Stay healthy for the first time in three seasons and reinvent himself as a pitcher. While the former is tough, the latter might be the bigger challenge for pitchers in their 30s.

But the Cubs’ former ace isn’t running from Father Time, and he’s hoping the changes he has made since the last time he was in Chicago keep him on the mound for a few more years.

“It’s just a natural progression of anyone’s career at a certain point,” Arrieta told the Sun-Times. “You look at baseball or the greats in really any sport other than Tom Brady, who is still doing it at a ridiculously high level. But 99% of the time, as you age, certain things aren’t the way they were. And that’s the game of chess within baseball.”

Arrieta has had to learn to do more with less, and after sitting at 95 mph with the fastball during his run of success, velocity is no longer the name of Arrieta’s game. He averaged 92 mph on his sinker in his first Cactus League start Sunday. That’s pretty much identical to his average sinker velocity in 2019 and ’20.

“He just never felt like he got back to being himself [in 2020],” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “I just see a guy that’s had a normal offseason. He’s worked hard to get back physically where he wanted to be, directionally and mechanically.”

The adjustments the Cubs have been making with Arrieta this spring have been to refine his mechanics, which they believe will help him get back to being himself. He thinks it also will help him find an extra mile per hour or two when he needs it.

“It’s more about trying to adopt an approach like Kyle Hendricks or Zach Davies,” he said. “They show the ability to get guys out consistently at a high level without high velocity. Staying within themselves, changing speeds, moving the ball around and creating deception.

“Do I think there’s 94 or 95 in there? I absolutely do. And once we clean up this delivery a little bit more and keep working, I think that [velocity] can move up a tick or two.”

While Arrieta might not have the repertoire he had in his prime, his sinker still has proved to be successful. Since 2018, Arrieta is fourth in MLB with a 51.5% ground-ball rate. Continuing to keep the ball on the ground and out of the air will be the key to him being effective this season.

“That’s rewarding for me to know that, OK, I don’t need 98. I don’t have to have that to pitch at an extremely high level. Do I still want a lot of velocity and to have these breaking balls with extremely high spin rates? Sure, of course, but it’s not always necessary to get the job done at a high level.”

Arrieta’s unique mix of pitches provides him with an opportunity to use what he has to stay ahead of hitters. During his dominant run in 2015-16, the breaking ball presented a unique challenge for hitters after seeing 96-mph sinkers. Even with his velocity down, the breaking ball can be the equalizer to keep hitters off-balance.

“Jake’s breaking ball is a real weapon,” manager David Ross said. “I think talking to him and watching him throw, it’s a really good breaking ball. It’s just about how he’s using it and using it to the right guys. We’re looking for Jake to be able to use his entire mix. When he’s at his best, he does that.”

“The curveball is the shape he wants [right now], and when it’s right, he can spin it wherever he wants,” Hottovy said. “We’ve had enough guys in this organization that have had eyes on him throughout his career, and so it’s easy to get that message across and stay on him about the things he wants to work on.”

It’s hard for people to think of Arrieta on the North Side without thinking about his successful run, but the Cubs aren’t looking for him to find the fountain of youth. They know who Arrieta is, but getting him the confidence to be a new version of himself is the ultimate goal.

“I still have great stuff but don’t necessarily need the stuff that I used to have in order to pitch well.”

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