If you asked us before the season who the Cubs' ace would be, we would have said Jon Lester. Little did we know that it would be Jake Arietta, who with his current play is pitching his way to Cy Young candidacy and baseball immortality.
Last offseason, the Chicago Cubs announced to the world they were finally ready to contend by signing Jon Lester to a 6-year, $155 million mega-deal to be their new ace. Theo got his prize and was reunited with his postseason hero from his Red Sox days. Lester has been good, albeit inconsistent (8-9, 3.44 ERA, 159 K), up to this point in his first season on the North Side. However, the standard for pitching success not only in the Cubs rotation but in the entire National League has come from a relatively unexpected source—Jake Arrieta. After a mini-breakout in 2014, Arrieta has pitched himself into contention for the Cy Young award, the award for the league’s top hurler.
Perhaps this shouldn't be as surprising as it has been, given Arrieta’s history. Arrieta was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 5th round out of TCU in the 2007 draft and quickly cemented himself atop the O’s prospect rankings. After dominating the minor leagues, he made his big league debut with the Orioles in 2010. His rookie numbers were nothing to write home about—6-6 with a 4.66 ERA in 18 starts—but things only got worse from there. Despite scouting reports gushing over his raw talent, the next 2 seasons Arrieta finished with a 5.05 ERA and a 6.20 ERA, respectively. After his first 5 starts in 2013 yielded an atrocious 7.23 ERA, the Orioles decided to cut their losses and salvage something for their flailing once top prospect. On July 2, 2013, they moved him (and Pedro Strop, now our set-up man) to Chicago for a one-year rental starter Scott Feldman and borderline major league catcher Steve Clevenger, a trade that may go down as the best of Theo Epstein’s career.
Arrieta immediately showed signs of turning things around in his first half season with the Cubs, posting 4 wins and a 3.66 ERA in 9 starts. The gamble was paying off. By 2014 he was a fixture in the rotation, earning his first 10-win season and finishing with an impressive 2.53 ERA. And while the change of scenery and work with pitching coach Chris Bosio were obviously yielding significant improvements, no one predicted just how high Arrieta would rise this season.
At this point, as August comes to a close and the Cubs are in the thick of the playoff hunt, Arrieta stands with 16 wins (1st in NL), 2.22 ERA (2nd in NL), 178 K (4th in NL), 0.98 WHIP (5th in NL), .204 BAA (4th in NL), 174 IP (2nd in NL), and 4.9 WAR (T-2nd for NL pitchers). Those are elite ace numbers. Even more impressive may be Arrieta’s current stretch of 13 consecutive quality starts (at least 6 IP, 3 or fewer ER), over which the Cubs have won all but 2 of those games. And, athletic and durable, he shows no signs of slowing down as we approach September.
Obviously, the National League is packed with strong Cy Young candidates. Gerrit Cole has been solid all season but not quite as sharp as of late. Clayton Kershaw is a once-in-a-generation talent and already has 3 Cy Youngs, but hasn't even been the best pitcher on his own team! And while Zach Greinke’s 1.67 ERA is legendary and almost impossible for Arrieta to match, the voters have shown a tendency to award players on winning teams. So as the Cubs’ arrow trends firmly upwards and the Dodgers’ arrow starts to angle down, why not Arrieta as the league’s best pitcher?
With much of the attention focused on the Cubs’ core of young hitters the season (and rightfully so), it can be easy to overlook the success of their pitching staff, especially the second half of the season. Even as Rizzo and Bryant send balls screaming onto Waveland, the real MVP for the contending Cubbies may just be the man with the big beard that takes the mound every fifth day. Pitching wins championships, and Jake Arrieta has certainly set a winning tone this season at Wrigley. If he continues doing the work he’s done all summer long and the Cubs can maintain their hold on a playoff spot (would he start the one game wildcard play-in over Lester?), he may just have to clear some room on his mantle for a nice piece of hardware this offseason.