Week Seven: Why it took a 2013 deadline deal to resurrect the dying career of Jake Arrieta

The date is August 30, 2015. The Cubs are holding on to a 2-0 lead against the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth and Jake Arrieta is on the cusp of his first ever no-hitter. Chase Utley – potential future Hall of Famer – is at the plate fighting to keep hopes alive for the crowd on their feet at Dodger Stadium. The count is 1-2. Arrieta gets the signal from his catcher Miguel Montero, calmly gathers himself, and proceeds to rip off a nasty 88 mph slider that starts right down the heart of the plate. Utley reads fastball out of the hand and starts his swing – only to realize it’s a backfoot slider too late. Utley swings over top of it for Arrieta’s 13thstrikeout of the evening and Montero rushes out to embrace Arrieta as Cubs players pour out from the bench and mob him in celebration of the second no hitter in franchise history. He was – in the words of Rob Friedman – the filthiest pitcher on the planet that evening. If you don’t believe him, just check it out for yourself.  

Arrieta wasn’t just the filthiest pitcher on the planet August 30, 2015 – he was the filthiest pitcher on the planet the rest of the season. Over his next six starts Arrieta would toss 46 innings, allow just two earned runs, and win five of those decisions to help propel Chicago to the NL Wild Card game. He wouldn’t give up a run at home until 2016 setting a Wrigley Field record for 52.2 consecutive scoreless innings at home. He finished out the season with a MLB-best 22 wins, a league second-best 1.77 ERA, and his first ever NL Cy Young award. Oh, and he also threw nine shutout innings, striking out 11, and outdueling Gerrit Cole in the NL Wild Card. It was as dominant as dominant could get.

Here’s the catch: Jake Arrieta wasn’t even on a big league roster two years ago.   

Let’s turn the clocks back to 2012. Arrieta opened the season as Baltimore’s opening day starter showing spurts of dominance in his first two years despite being wildly inconsistent. His first three starts of the season showed what he was capable of: 1-0, 20.1 IP, 8 ER, 16 K, 4 BB, and a 2.66 ERA. After throwing eight shutout innings against the Yankees May 2, Arrieta never returned to form. His ERA ballooned to 6.23 after surrendering nine earned in four innings to Philadelphia June 8. He was sent back down to Triple A Norfolk in July and didn’t make much of an impression throwing 56 innings, walking 28, and allowing 25 earned runs for a 4.02 ERA. He was called back up to the Baltimore bullpen in September and racked up 20 punch outs in 13.1 IP but also surrendered 10 runs. Arrieta finished the season with a disappointing 6.20 ERA.  

2013 didn’t get any better. After a rough April Arrieta returned to Norfolk and continued to put up mediocre numbers. He got one more chance with the Orioles June 17 and was dreadful giving up 10 hits and 5 runs in 4.2 IP to Detroit. His ERA skyrocketed to a career-worst 7.23. Two weeks later he was traded to Chicago in a deal that shipped him and Pedro Strop off for starting pitcher Scott Feldman.

If you were to describe Arrieta’s time in Baltimore, some words that come to mind include promising, disappointing, inconsistent, and failure. To put it bluntly, he stunk.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. After changing uniforms and adjusting to the new scenery in Chicago, Arrieta started to show signs of promise again. He made 9 starts for the big league club in 2013 and won four posting a 3.66 ERA ERA in 51.2 IP. In his last two starts, Arrieta won both throwing 13 innings and allowing just two earned runs to lower his ERA to 4.78. While it was a small sample size, Arrieta’s encouraging September showed signs that he might have something left in the tank that he couldn’t quite tap into in Baltimore. Then 2014 happened. 

A seemingly overnight success, Arrieta exploded onto the scene in his first full year with the Cubs throwing 156.2 innings and winning 10 of his 15 decisions. He set career-highs in just about every statistical category dropping ERA to 2.53, shaving his BB/9 down to 2.4, and increasing his K/9 to 9.06. His 5.3 WAR was good for top 10 in the league. A once after thought in a 2013 deadline deal, Arrieta started to not only make others believe in him again – he started to believe in himself. Arrieta was no longer fighting for innings by the end of 2014 – he solidified himself as Chicago’s number one arm. He also wasn’t done yet. Over the next three seasons Arrieta made 94 starts for Chicago winning 54 of them and averaging 198 IP per season, 196 K, and a 2.80 ERA. He won his first Cy Young award, made his first All-Star appearance, and helped Chicago break a 108-year drought and win the 2016 World Series.

Arrieta went from being on the verge of quitting baseball to being on top of the baseball world in just three short years. His rags to riches story is one we can all learn from – especially since he had everything he needed all along. He just needed the freedom to tap into it.  

In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, Arrieta opened up to Tom Verducci about his frustrating stint with Baltimore sharing his constant “tug-o-war” battle with pitching coach Rick Adair. Adair took over the role of pitching coach mid-season in 2011 after Mark Connor stepped down for personal reasons. Arrieta’s description of Adair gives you everything you need to know about him: “(A) my way or highway guy with a cookie cutter approach.” The coach reportedly was constantly fiddling with Arrieta’s mechanics and tinkering with things that made the right hander uncomfortable in his own skin. Verducci described these tweaks in the article saying:

“At the time, Arrieta pitched with his crossfire style from the first base side of the rubber and started his delivery with his hands at his belt. A month later he was pitching from the middle of the rubber and swinging his hands over his head. A few months later the Orioles forbade their pitchers to use the cutter for fear that it sapped fastball velocity.

“By the next April, Arrieta still pitched from the middle of the rubber, but his hands were back at his belt. By May he was back on the first base side of the rubber. By September he had trimmed his windup to a modified stretch position. By the next year he was back to the middle of the rubber with a huge change: Adair took away his crossfire step in favor of a stride directly to the plate.”

Below is what Arrieta looked like in Baltimore.

Below is what Arrieta looked like when he threw his first no hitter in 2015.

Here’s what they look like side by side.

When Adair took away Arrieta’s ability to stride closed, Arrieta lost his ability to work across his body. In order for Arrieta to stride straight, he had to swing his pelvis wide open causing him to lose the ground early (see back foot). This put his pelvis in a position where it couldn’t anchor down and create stability for his upper half to rotate around. When the pelvis loses stability, it drags the midsection through and creates a huge energy leak that can impact velocity, command, health, and performance. Instead of anchoring down, capturing energy, and throwing his punch from deep, Arrieta was forced to fly open and throw his punch too soon – and there wasn’t anything behind it.

His performances were inconsistent because he couldn’t create any consistency in his delivery; he was working from a base with zero stability. The constant tinkering, adjusting, and compensating caused Arrieta to become a “mechanic-addict” constantly worried about what his coaches were thinking. He was no longer worried about competing and going to war with his best stuff – he was worried about where his foot was when he landed, where his glove was when he moved down the mound, or where he finished after releasing the ball. He knew he didn’t feel right and he knew he needed to do something else, but he didn’t have the support from his coaches to explore other options. He had about as much power as a puppet on strings.  

Arrieta spoke about this in the article saying:

“I feel like I was playing a constant tug-of-war, trying to make the adjustments I was being told to make and knowing in the back of my mind that I can do things differently and be better. It was such a tremendous struggle for me because as a second and third-year player, you want to be coachable. I knew I got [to the majors] for a reason, and I was confused about why I was changing that now. You feel everybody has your best interests in mind, but you come to find out that’s not necessarily the case.”

Arrieta wasn’t the only one who had issues with Adair, either

“I had struggles with my pitching coach. A lot of guys did. Three or four guys—Tillman, Matusz, [Zach] Britton—were just really uncomfortable in their own skins at the time, trying to be the guys they weren’t. You can attest how difficult it is to try to reinvent your mechanics against the best competition in the world.”

Minor league Chris Tillman vs. MLB Chris Tillman – notice any themes?

When Arrieta got to Chicago, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to last if he kept on doing what he was forced to do with the Orioles. He knew he could do it differently and all he needed was the support to make it happen. The good news for him was his new pitching coach Chris Bosio wasn’t interested in taking Baltimore’s approach; he just wanted Arrieta to be himself. Bosio – a cross-body guy himself – started to mend the lack of distrust Arrieta had by getting him back to doing what he used to do all along: Striding closed and working across his body.

“I was able to not hold anything back or feel like I was judged,” said Arrieta. “People had lost faith in me in Baltimore, and rightfully so. I knew that was not the guy I was. I was letting it out as hard as I could in a controlled way. I was across my body. I felt strong. I felt explosive.”

Arrieta no longer had to worry about whether he was balanced, where his foot was landing, or if his glove side was where it needed to be. He finally had the freedom to figure out who he was as a pitcher. The sky was the limit from here.

Oh, and the Cubs also let him use the cutter Baltimore took away from him because it would “hurt his fastball velocity” (they did the same thing to Dylan Bundy – worked really well for them). It turned out to be one of the best pitches in baseball. While Baseball Savant groups his slider and cutter together, hitters batted .184/.210/.266 off of it in 2015. Here’s a pretty good look at it:

Imagine telling someone they can’t throw that. 

So now let’s get to the point of this story: Why did Baltimore force Arrieta to be something he clearly wasn’t? Why did Adair take away the things that helped Arrieta become a really good pitcher in the first place? Why did he have such a different experience in Chicago? 

Let’s start by talking about lemon juice.

 

 

On April 19, 1995, MacArthur Wheeler was sentenced to prison for one of the most infamous crimes in United States history. Earlier that day, he robbed two Pittsburgh banks at gunpoint in broad daylight – and didn’t even wear a mask. At 6’6” 270 pounds, MacArthur needed all the help he could get to prevent police from catching on to his trail. Instead, he made it nearly impossible for police not to catch him even smiling and waving to the surveillance cameras as he left the banks. Tapes from the robbings were shown on the the 11 o’clock news and police had a lead within a few minutes. When Wheeler found the police at his door step later that evening, he couldn’t believe they figured out he did it.

“But I wore the juice,” he said.  

The “juice” Wheeler claimed to have worn was lemon juice – a substance known to be used for invisible ink. Since Wheeler knew lemon juice could conceal secret messages, he used deductive reasoning and decided it could conceal anything – even his face. He tested it on himself, “confirmed” his findings through a series of photographs, and decided to leverage this breakthrough to help him get away with a series of bank robberies. In his mind it was the perfect plan – no one would ever identify him if his faced was hidden via lemon juice. He wasn’t delusional, on drugs, or mentally insane – just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler’s incredulous story caught the eye of Cornell psychology professor David Dunning. Being someone who studied human behavior, Dunning was fascinated with how Wheeler came up with such a stupid idea (stupid is an understatement) and believed it so much that he put it to the test in a situation that was bound to end in jail time. What could possibly drive behavior as irrational as robbing multiple banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask and honestly believing it was possible to get away with? Was Wheeler a one-of-a-kind or was everyone susceptible to this kind of thinking? Dunning wanted to know so he set out with graduate student Justin Kruger and designed a series of experiments that forever changed how we look at human behavior.

To put Wheeler’s infamous crime to the test, Dunning and Kruger gathered a group of undergraduate psychology students and quizzed them on their abilities in grammar, logic, and humor. They then asked the students to estimate their scores and how well they think they did relative to the rest of the participants. What they discovered is what we know today as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Those who had the lowest amount of ability significantly overestimated their abilities while those who had the most amount of ability slightly underestimated their abilities.

Wheeler, if you couldn’t tell, would fall at the end of the spectrum of people who overestimated their lack of ability. He was very confident in the little that he did know (lemon juice is used for invisible ink) but he was horribly wrong when it came to the extent and application of it (lemon juice can make my face invisible to surveillance cameras). There was a huge gap between what he actually knew and what he thought he knew. This gap is what Dunning and Kruger discovered and it is real – our perception of ability and actual ability do not share a linear correlation. If anything, they are the opposite.   

If we look at the other end of the spectrum, the wisest people are the ones who work against our inclination to feel good and assume what we know is correct. They don’t sit in the comfort of their current thoughts and block out contradicting ones – they embrace what they don’t know and they actively seek it. The reason why they underestimate their abilities is because they need to in order to continuously learn. It’s not just uncomfortable; it’s necessary

(source)

Recognizing we don’t know much at all is great motivation to learn; thinking we know it all is great motivation to stop learning. If we stop learning, we don’t realize there’s more out there to know because we’re either not looking for it or we’re ignoring what’s in front of us. This creates the gap in perception and ability: Our incompetence makes us feel competent because we’re too incompetent to know we’re incompetent. In other words, we’re too dumb to realize how dumb we are. If you want to know what this looks like, just scroll through Twitter and sift through all the “five minute Youtube video experts.” Why waste years of actually doing things and researching when you can just learn everything you need to know in just five minutes? 

The thing about the Dunning-Kreuger Effect is that it’s not reserved for a selective few; we are all susceptible to overestimating our abilities. In fact, we’re most vulnerable when we first venture out into a specific area because it’s the one point in time when we know the least (hopefully, at least). When we don’t know anything else, we make ourselves believe that we actually know something because there’s nothing to contradict what we know. This is why it’s so tough to shake bad information that we learn early on in our career – what we learn when we first start out creates the foundation from which we build upon. Taking a Jenga block out from the bottom is a whole lot risker than skimming one off the top.

For some people, it’s a lot easier to just leave the Jenga blocks where they are and continue to build on top of it – to a point of diminishing returns. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The ones who avoid Dunning-Kruger are the ones who aren’t afraid of the Jenga blocks falling to the ground. Every time it gets knocked down, they build one back up that is stronger than the one before. We can only do this if we drop our agenda at the door and realize we don’t know anything at all; our ultimate antidote to Dunning-Kruger.

“One of the great challenges in this world is knowing enough about a subject to think you’re right – but not enough about the subject to know you’re wrong.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

When we coach out of fear for knocking over the Jenga blocks, we create “this is how we’ve always done it” coaches. These kinds of coaches epitomize the Dunning-Kruger Effect because what they know has been shaped through the n=1 approach. If they didn’t hear it as a player or learn it from one of their coaches growing up, it doesn’t make a difference to them. They’re not concerned with expanding their base of knowledge because they could discover things that would contradict what they firmly believe in. What they believe in is really important to them because it created their foundation of knowledge growing up. The problem with this is a foundation built on limited knowledge makes for a really weak foundation. You can only build up so high before the entire structure becomes dangerously unstable.

If we go back to the issues between Arrieta and Adair, this absolutely could have been why the two were constantly butting heads. Adair more than likely developed his perception of what a high level delivery should like based on a narrow scope of his experiences as a player and early on as a coach. When he found something that made sense to him, he took it and ran with it. He wasn’t concerned whether it was wrong or not because he already decided it was right. What he didn’t realize is the model he developed an emotional attachment to had a limited bandwidth. When he saw movements that didn’t fit into his model, he didn’t think the model was wrong – he thought the player was wrong. This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

There will come a point for everyone where we have to wrestle with the unknown and handle thoughts that challenge what we currently believe to be true. The more we believe in what we already think, the more rigid our mold becomes and the less likely it is to change when presented with better information. The less we believe in what we already know, the easier it is to change our mold when presented with something that makes more sense. Adair’s mold of a high level delivery was akin to hardened clay – it’s not going to change and he’s not going to risk breaking it. This fragility is where Dunning-Kruger takes a firm grasp on our perceptions and beliefs and it’s a big reason why Adair lost Arrieta’s trust. Adair force fed Arrieta a mold that he wasn’t built for it. Stripping him of his cross-fire delivery and cutter was like sending him to war without his sword, shield, and armor. Chicago, on the other hand, made sure he never ventured into enemy territory unprepared. To put it bluntly: Baltimore screwed him up. Chicago unscrewed him up. 

Arrieta already had what he needed to succeed and that’s the sad part about this whole thing. If he didn’t spend three years of his career trying to do something he wasn’t made to do, he could had a lot more success, made a whole lot more money, and helped Baltimore win a lot more games. Being a Yankees fan I’m not too upset about this – but as a baseball coach it makes me really upset because this isn’t a one time scenario. There are plenty of more Jake Arrietas out there searching for answers, head butting with coaches, and battling to find success on the mound. Player development isn’t about driving agendas and being right – it’s about helping players and getting it right.  

We don’t develop players when we overestimate our abilities as a coach; we break them.  

 

 

Now let’s go back to square one and do this the right way. Instead of just jumping to aesthetics and rigid preconceived notions of a high-level delivery, step one should have been understanding what makes Jake Arrieta really good. Dr. Greg Rose of Titleist Performance Institute talks about how one of the most important questions he asks his golfers is, “Why are you on tour?” If their long drive is the thing that separates them from the rest of the field, maintaining that skill – at the very least – must be a priority. Spending time on the putting green should not come at the expense of your ability to drive the ball with power and precision. If we forget about the areas that make players elite – or just ignore them altogether – we make it impossible for that athlete to compete at a high level. Constantly addressing weaknesses isn’t coaching – it’s nit-picking. Teaching players how to leverage their strengths is coaching. Steve Kerr could give a shit that Steph Curry doesn’t have a polished baby hook – he impacts the game in so many other ways that addressing that weakness would be a colossal waste of time.  

If we look at Chicago Arrieta, we get a pretty good feel for the stuff that made him really nasty. For one, he needed to stride closed and work across his body. It helped him create optimal length-tension relationships that helped him stay in the ground longer and keep his pelvis closed so he could get to his max point of tension just after release. When he strided closed and kept his pelvis from opening up too soon, he gave himself the ability to throw on the brakes after foot plant. This created an efficient deceleration sequence which had a significant impact on his velocity, command, arm health (his elbow killed him in Baltimore), and performance. When he tried to stride straight, he lost the ground and flew open with his pelvis the way you would open up a gate. This caused everything else to drag through instead of stopping, capturing energy, and efficiently transferring it up the chain.

The second notable thing he brought back in Chicago was his cut-fastball. When Baltimore took this away out of fear it would hurt his fastball velocity (wtf lol), they stripped Arrieta of arguably the nastiest pitch in his arsenal.  Coming in at anywhere from 90-93 mph, Arrieta’s cutter paired beautifully off his two seam fastball to make for a devastating duo. One pitch is running in on your hands while the other pitch runs away – and they both look the same coming out of the hand. Most hitters can’t pick up on the difference until it’s too late. One pitch by itself is still a good pitch, but blending the two movement profiles made it so much more powerful for Arrieta. He now had a weapon that could complete the other half of his X – almost like he was trying to build an even biotensegrity system (lol).  

Arrieta’s story is something we should all learn from as coaches and players because these kinds of stories are real. There are plenty of “coaches” out there who have made up their mind on how they are going to teach and it ends up hurting a lot more players than it helps. If kids come up and don’t have a great feel for the things that make them elite, they can easily be deterred when they don’t have success right off the bat. Arrieta was in a vulnerable spot because he didn’t have consistent success and he wanted to be coachable – he just didn’t know what to believe in. It took hitting rock bottom and a change of scenery for him to finally get on the right track. Our goal as coaches should be to never push players to a depth from which they can’t begin to crawl out – and they definitely shouldn’t need a change of scenery, either. When we overestimate what we think we know, we run the risk of turning players into something they’re not. Arrieta was fortunate enough to find a group of coaches that helped get him back on track; others aren’t so fortunate. 

If Arrieta was brought up in a system that understood him as a player, worked to leverage his strengths, encouraged him to offer feedback, and made him an active part of his development process, he might have been able to do what he did in 2015 in 2012. He didn’t need a rigid system to tell him where he fit in; he needed the freedom and support to do what he already knew how to do really well. He didn’t need coaches who overestimated their abilities, stripped him of the things that made him elite, and constantly made tweaks to his delivery; he needed mentors who were there to nudge him in the right direction. He had everything he needed to succeed – he just needed to separate himself from people who thought they knew more about him than he did. Great coaches build their kids up; bad coaches break them down. Jake Arrieta was down to his last brick when he switched uniforms in 2013. He was fortunate to find a group of guys who knew a thing or two about building a house – but at the same time didn’t think they knew a thing.

The age old wisdom of Socrates is our ultimate antidote to the Dunning-Kruger Effect and could be our most powerful tool when it comes to developing players: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

When we don’t let what we think we know get in the way of developing players, we get something like this:

 

The date is October 6, 2013 and the Baltimore Orioles are clinging to a two run lead over the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card game. Jake Arrieta – one of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young award – is one strike away from finishing off his masterpiece allowing just five hits and no earned runs. Josh Donaldson is at the plate battling in a 1-2 count to try and keep hopes alive for the fans on their feet at the Collesium. Arrieta gets the signal from catcher Matt Weiters – cutter away – and nods in agreement. It’s been one of the best pitches in baseball this season; now seems like a great time to use it.

He calmly gathers himself and begins his windup striding towards the third base side of the rubber. After his foot lands, he powerfully works across his body and delivers a 93 mph cutter that starts right down the middle of the plate. Donaldson reads it initially as the two seam fastball he just saw two pitches ago and starts his swing – but realizes it’s Arrieta’s devastating cutter a few feet too late. The pitch darts out the strike zone, misses Donaldson’s bat, and finishes in the glove of Wieters just off the outside corner. Orioles players come pouring out of the dugout to mob Arrieta and Wieters in celebration just beyond the mound. Arrieta – a 20 game winner in the regular season – has come up with his biggest win of the year and has helped the birds punch their ticket to the ALDS against Detroit. Baseball’s feel good story will play at least another three games in 2015; all Arrieta needs is for them to find a way to get to game four. 

 

Oh, what could have been, Baltimore. 

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