Cubs' Jake Arrieta calls PED accusations 'flattering'
1:00 | MLB
Cubs' Jake Arrieta calls PED accusations 'flattering'
Friday April 29th, 2016

Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta did not have his no-hit form on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Facing the Brewers in his first start since his no-hitter against the Reds, he lost his bid to join Johnny Vander Meer in the annals of baseball history almost immediately, as leadoff hitter Jonathan Villar dumped a broken-bat single off Arrieta’s fifth pitch of the day into leftfield. By the time the reigning NL Cy Young winner was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning, two of Arrieta’s most notable streaks had come to an end, though he did get credited with the win in the Cubs’ lopsided 7–2 victory.

Arrieta no-hit the Reds on April 21, working around four walks and waiting out a Cubs offense that bashed out 16 runs, producing the most lopsided score in a no-hitter since 1884. It was the second no-hitter of the 30-year-old righty's career; his first was last August 30 against the Dodgers. His nine regular season starts between no-hitters was the third-shortest stretch in history behind only Vander Meer (back-to-back no-hitters in 1938) and Warren Spahn (five starts between no-hitters in 1960-61).

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Rain in Chicago pushed Arrieta’s follow-up start from Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon, and continued to fall prior to the game. The temperature at first pitch was just 46 degrees, but while Arrieta came out in short sleeves, apparently unfazed by the conditions, he struggled with his command and quickly found his way into a jam. After his single, Villar stole second with one out in the first. Ryan Braun walked on six pitches, and after the runners pulled of a double steal, Jonathan Lucroy walked on five pitches to load the bases. Arrieta escaped by striking out Chris Carter and Kirk Nieuwenhuis on 94 mph fastballs, but he needed 31 pitches to complete the frame, of which just 16 were strikes. It was the most pitches he threw in an inning since July 7, 2015, when he recorded just two outs in the seventh while tossing 31 pitches.

Despite the weather and a Cubs offense that kept him on the bench for lengthy stretches while scratching out five runs against hapless Brewers starter Taylor Jungmann (who threw 95 pitches but didn't make it out of the fourth inning) and reliever Chris Capuano, Arrieta did manage to find some semblance of a groove, facing just 10 hitters over the next three innings and not surrendering another hit until Villar connected for a two-out single in the fifth and again stole second. Alex Presley followed by rocketing a double into the rightfield corner, scoring Villar.

With that, Arrieta’s streak of 52 2/3 consecutive scoreless regular season innings at home — a stretch dating back to July 25 of last year, opposite Cole Hamels’ no-hitter — came to an end. Via the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the longest streak in the history of Wrigley Field, which opened in 1914, and the second-longest in the majors since 1900, behind only the 54-inning streak of the White Sox’s Ray Herbert from 1962-63; Arrieta had passed the Senators’ Walter Johnson (51 innings in 1918), earlier in the game. Via Elias, Arrieta is the only pitcher with six straight scoreless starts at home since 1900.

Arrieta avoided further damage by retiring Braun on a first-pitch grounder to end the fifth, but his day was done, though he didn’t know it at the time. Up 5–1 in the bottom of the fifth, with one out and runners on first and third against Capuano, Cubs manager Joe Maddon opted to attempt to break the game open instead of letting his ace swing the bat. Pinch-hitter Jorge Soler drew a walk, and one batter later, Dexter Fowler brought Tommy La Stella home with a run on a fielder’s choice, expanding the lead to 6–1.

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It was a defensible move by Maddon, given the weather, Arrieta’s long idle stretches between innings and his lack of command. Though he struck out six, he walked four batters for the second start in a row, the first time he’s done that since August 21 and 26, 2013, in his third and fourth starts for the Cubs. Just 57 of his 92 pitches were strikes and he needed 19 or more pitches in three of his five innings. On top of that, even with the extra day of rest, he was coming off the fourth-highest pitch count of his career (119) and with the rainout had the benefit of a bullpen that had off days on Monday and Wednesday.

By working just five innings, Arrieta’s remarkable streak of consecutive quality starts (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs) ended at 24, two short of Bob Gibson’s 1967-68 run for the longest since the start of the 1913 season (again, this is regular season only). Updating SI’s Cliff Corcoran’s table from his dive into such streaks, Arrieta is tied with Johnson for the third-longest streak in that span:

Bob Gibson Cardinals 1967-68 26
Eddie Cicotte* White Sox 1916-17 25
Jake Arrieta Cubs 2015-16 24
Walter Johnson* Senators 1914-15 24
Chris Carpenter Cardinals 2005 22
Johan Santana Twins 2004 21
Pedro Martinez* Red Sox 1999-2000 21
Greg Maddux Braves 1997-98 21
Dwight Gooden Mets 1984-85 21
Lon Warneke* Cubs 1993 21

*The pitchers with asterisks also made relief appearances during those stretches, though they're not included in the consecutive start total and were thus not captured via Cliff’s Play Index query.

As Cliff pointed out, Arrieta actually posted a slightly lower ERA in his streak than Gibson (0.86 versus 0.90) in a higher-scoring context during his streak, albeit in far fewer innings (178 to 229). Even with the streak, which began on June 21, 2015, coming to an end, he has now allowed just 21 runs (18 earned runs) over his last 183 regular season innings, for a 0.89 ERA, with 179 strikeouts, 37 walks and just four homers allowed in that span. For what it’s worth, those 183 innings are the most by a pitcher in that time frame, with Clayton Kershaw (176 2/3) and Garrett Richards (165 1/3) the only other pitchers with at least 160, yet another point in Maddon’s favor when it comes to the early hook. Arrieta did pitch long enough to get credit for the win, running his streak to 16 straight decisions, the longest since the White Sox’s Jose Contreras’ 17 straight wins in 2005-06.

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With a decidedly human start under Arrieta’s belt, he can perhaps get a rest from the microscope under which he’s spent the days since his no-hitter, during which he had the unenviable task of defusing a controversy that began when Ozzie Guillen Jr., son of the former White Sox manager, posted a Facebook meme suggesting that Arrieta's breakout has been fueled by steroids. In the wake of that, ESPN contrarian Stephen A. Smith leveled a similarly unsubstantiated allegation. Arrieta took the comments in stride, calling for stiffer penalties for those who violate the sport’s drug agreement and suggesting to reporters that it’s not the first time he’s heard such accusations. Via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Arrieta said:

“It’s somewhat flattering when some of those comments are coming from some of the best players in the game. I think it’s funny. I’ve always been in pretty good shape, I just sucked early in my career from a statistical perspective [20-25, 5.46 ERA in Baltimore]. My body has always been very similar to how it is now, but it’s just that the numbers, the results are different.”

Last month, SI’s Tom Verducci profiled Arrieta, discussing some of the reasons behind his struggles during his time with the Orioles and his breakout since arriving via trade on July 2, 2013. Baltimore drafted Arrieta out of Texas Christian University in the fifth round in 2007 and brought him to the majors in 2010, but their instructors could not resist tinkering with him. Among other things, the Orioles moved him from the third base side of the pitching rubber to the first base side, modified his delivery and prohibited him (and other Orioles pitchers) from throwing cut fastballs; Arrieta also had surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow. Since the trade, Arrieta returned to the third base side of the rubber, tweaked his mechanics to shorten his stride and found a more consistent release point with the help of pitching coach Chris Bosio. Arrieta brought back what is actually a cutter/slider hybrid, in which the velocity and break he can manipulate with subtle changes in finger pressure. Since the start of the 2014 season, batters are slugging .266 when they put the pitch into play according to data at Brooks Baseball. His average fastball velocity has increased from 94.5 mph to 95.1 mph, not exactly something an informed observer would pin on PEDs.

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Reasonable explanations for Arrieta’s success have been reported on from a variety of outlets over the past two seasons. But given the history of PED usage within the sport — a history that has included four major leaguers’ suspensions since the opening of camps in February, including the Blue Jays’ Chris Colabello over the weekend — the fact remains that the most cynical observers will take the opportunity to accuse any player who reaches a new level of performance of doing so via chemical means.

Aside from remaining on the right side of the drug agreement, there’s not much more that Arrieta can do other than to let such allegations roll off his back. Even then, it’s probably more fun to pitch brilliantly and draw such fire instead of scuffling as he did on Thursday.

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