Jake Arrieta always had “it,” he said. It is what helped him five years ago to not walk away from baseball. Matt Klentak first saw “it” a decade ago and it is what the Phillies general manager believes separated Arrieta from the rest. Arrieta’s college coach discovered Arrieta had “it” when he first saw him pitch and offered him a scholarship that night.
“It” is Arrieta’s extreme confidence, his defining characteristic and a trait fueled by his work ethic and preparation. It is what powered him through a rough start to his professional career. It forced him to retool the way he pitched and mold himself into a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series champion.
It is what assures Arrieta that he can still perform at a high level, despite knowing the challenges he faced last season. It is what made the Phillies believe he was worth $75 million. And it is what they hope Arrieta — who will debut Sunday at Citizens Bank Park — can instill in their young team.
“It is a characteristic of a leader that you have to have,” Arrieta said. “There’s a lot of false confidence out there. Confidence is earned by preparation, by routine, and if it’s something that you feel like is true and sincere, then that’s what makes a great player. A great competitor is a guy that not only exudes confidence but has the routine and the work ethic to back it up. It’s something that started as a kid and manifested itself into my professional career and is just a part of who I am.”
Arrieta ended up at Texas Christian almost by accident. Jim Schlossnagle, the longtime TCU coach, went to scout a junior-college closer. But Schlossnagle figured if he’s going to the game, he should just watch the whole thing and not just the ninth inning.
That’s when he saw Arrieta. The righthander started that night for Weatherford Junior College and dominated behind a confident mound presence. Schlossnagle immediately called his assistant. Tell me about Arrieta, he said. Forget the closer, Schlossnagel wanted the starter. He met Arrieta afterward, offered him a scholarship, and asked him to come to campus the next day. Arrieta visited with his father and signed the scholarship.
He went 14-4 with a 2.35 ERA in his first season with the Horned Frogs. He averaged a strikeout per inning and was the conference’s co-pitcher of the year. The Orioles drafted him a year later, just two years after his coach found him by accident.
Arrieta’s college success was fueled by preparation. The pitcher was an incrediblely hard worker, Schlossnagle said, who was focused as soon as he arrived at TCU. If you told Arrieta to do 10 reps in the weight room, he would do 25. No one was more prepared, Schlossnagle said.
The best players Schlossnagel has coached are those who are self-aware. Arrieta knew what he was good at and knew where he needed to improve. The pitcher was obsessed with getting better. And sometimes Arrieta’s preparation could be overdone. But never, the coach said, was it underdone.
“We have this equation that we talk about. E plus R equals O. The event plus the response equals the outcome. You can’t control the event, but you can control the response, and how you respond to things is going to determine the outcome,” Schlossnagle said. “Jake’s always believed in that. His body language makes you think that he’s always in control, but he’s human and I’m sure there’s days where he has his doubts like everyone, but he never lets it show. He’s always been confident and always had an awesome presence. And that’s a sign of a great one.”
TCU started working during Arrieta’s first season with Brian Cain, a mental-performance coach for athletes. Cain remembers Arrieta as a pitcher who “looked like a Greek god” and would always sit in the front of the room, diligently taking notes during Cain’s lessons. It was Arrieta’s introduction to baseball’s mental side, something he tried to master as he rose to be one of the game’s elite arms. Arrieta’s work ethic and process, Cain said, are second to none. That’s where Arrieta draws his confidence.
“I’m not sure any athlete ever really has confidence,” Cain said. “What I think is that they learn how to act confident. They learn how to compete confident. They learn that confidence is something that you do, not something that you are. Jake Arrieta was always the same. He never really showed any emotion and you realized that was part of his advantage. Part of his advantage when he’s on the mound is that you’re going to see the guy who looks like he’s the best pitcher in the history of baseball, but you never know what’s going on. That’s strategic. That’s what you want to project as a pitcher. That’s how every pitcher should behave.”
It may have been hard to predict 10 years ago that Arrieta would arrive last month to spring training on the private jet of Phillies owner John Middleton. Arrieta struggled so much in Baltimore that he seriously considered retiring, going back to school, and getting a start on his business career. But he fought on. He reevaluated his life, changed the way he pitched, and made the adjustments necessary to be an elite pitcher. Five years later, was one of baseball’s highest-paid pitchers. It worked out pretty well, Arrieta said.
And waiting on the tarmac when the plane landed were the ones who knew him back then. Klentak was the Orioles’ director of baseball operations when Arrieta was going through the minor leagues. Phillies president Andy MacPhail was Klentak’s boss in Baltimore. Farm director Joe Jordan was Baltimore’s scouting director and the one who drafted Arrieta. Ned Rice, Klentak’s top assistant, worked in the Orioles’ front office.
It was a reunion. Klentak had awarded the biggest contract of his career as a general manager. And he did with a pitcher he knew had “it.” Bruce Kison, a former Orioles scout, often told the front office that “there are a lot of talented pitchers in the world, but Jake is different.” It was the way he carried himself — in good times and bad — and his work ethic that made him different. Arrieta, Klentak said, always had a supreme belief in himself.
“He walked into his first major-league clubhouse and was like ‘Here I am,’ ” said Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who was the Orioles’ pitching coach when Arrieta reached the majors in 2010. “He didn’t say it, he just carried himself that way. He carried himself like a champion whether he struggled or not. He was always the same guy. We were like, ‘Look at this guy, he really believes in himself.’ That’s exactly how I’ve always known him.”
Arrieta will start Sunday for the Phillies, making his debut at Citizens Bank Park in front of what should be a frenzied crowd. His signing brought a spark to the Phillies. He received one of the loudest ovations Thursday at the home opener. But his signing did not come without questions. His velocity dipped last season and his ERA rose. Arrieta knows that. Arrieta points to the success he had last season in the second half, when he looked more like the pitcher who won a Cy Young in 2015. He believes — of course, he does — that he can still be the pitcher he was. It is a challenge he is ready to face. And yes, he’s confident.
“Perseverance, man,” Arrieta said. “It’s easy to hang your head and make excuses and feel like the whole world’s against you and things will never go your way. It takes a special person to overcome certain obstacles.”