CLEARWATER, Fla. — “Did he already throw?”
“Yeah. He’s done.”
That was the exchange between two Phillies minor-leaguers on the side fields at spring training. One, clean-shaven, got to watch Jake Arrieta throw his first bullpen session as a Phillie. The other, struggling to grow face fur like Arrieta’s, had to practice hitting cutoff men, so he wasn’t able to hang out near the mounds with the 50 other players.
It’s OK. He wouldn’t have seen what everyone was looking for, anyway.
You know. That missing 2 mph.
The 2 mph the Phillies insist they don’t care is missing.
Yes, it’s just 2 mph. Turtle speed. An extra 2 mph probably won’t cost you a speeding ticket, but might cost you a second Cy Young Award. Or $100 million and, say, three years of job security on the free-agent market, which is what Arrieta wanted but didn’t get.
The 2 mph Arrieta lost off his pitches from 2016 to 2017 scared off the deepest-pocketed courtiers and helped the rebuilding Phillies land him for three years and $75 million. This, after a season that indicated Arrieta, two seasons removed from his Cy Young campaign, needs his 2 mph.
“I never look at velocity,” said Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who was Arrieta’s coach when he debuted with the Orioles in 2010. “I look at outs.”
Well, one often induces the other.
“Velocity’s great. It’s not like I intend to pitch at low velocity. My velocity last year was still pretty good,” Arrieta said, then allowed: “It was down a tick.”
His fastball velocity last year was 92.6 mph. His slider speed slid, too.
“That’s not to say I can’t get a little jump this year,” Arrieta said. “Body feels great. But like ‘Kranny’ said: There’s so many ways to get guys out, as far as manipulating the baseball. Focusing more on commanding the ball and moving it around the strike zone. In and out of the strike zone.
“And when you do have a down-tick in velocity, it really makes you put a little more emphasis on those other two components.”
In short: He’s going to pitch around it.
That’s the Phillies’ gamble. It’s a good gamble, and a gamble the Phillies needed to make. And it’s a big, big deal; at least, it is in Clearwater.
Arrieta’s arrival seems muted in Philadelphia: perhaps by the afterglow of the Eagles’ win in Super Bowl LII; perhaps by the anguish and elation of football free agency, when old favorites like Brent Celek are dismissed to retain new favorites, like Nigel Bradham; perhaps by the promise and the frustration the Sixers and Flyers lately generate.
Perhaps it’s because the Phillies have been an average of 23.6 games under .500 for the past five seasons.The palpable feeling in Florida is, that tide is about to turn.
“Jake, in our opinion, was the best player available this offseason. Period,” owner John Middleton said when Arrieta signed Tuesday. “Not just the best pitcher. The best player.”
OK. A couple of things.
Owners don’t always attend free-agent signings, and they almost never admit that they personally coveted the player in question as much as their hirelings. It smells like meddling. Also, Middleton attended Arrieta’s signing because it was an event; the event, he believes, that signifies the Phillies are relevant right now. The Phillies won 66 games in 2017.
This collection of players hasn’t seen many stars in person, so they look at Arrieta like he’s some sort of bearded unicorn. Famously comfortable in his own skin, and only his skin — he was a Pilates-honed hit in the 2016 Body Issue of ESPN the Magazine — Arrieta has fame, fortune and a World Series ring, which is a sacred ring, since it was won with the once-cursed Cubs.
A dozen of the players attended his press conference Tuesday, many of them cornerstones like Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro. Twenty-four eyes saw the man who immediately made 2018 not just another rebuilding year.
But they didn’t see the missing 2 mph.
When Arrieta threw his first bullpen session on Wednesday morning at 9:30, it was 54 degrees and colder in the shade. But 50 otherwise-idle teammates and minor-leaguers lined up to watch Arrieta throw each species of his pitches — two versions of fastball, a cutter, a slider, a change-up — among the 40 or 50 tosses he took. Those 100 eyes saw a heavy fastball. A biting cutter.
But they didn’t see the missing 2 mph.
What they did see, both Tuesday at the conference table and Wednesday on the mound, was a completely controlled and balanced delivery from a veteran who expects to succeed.
“When you have a presence that’s that commanding, when you have a man who’s that prepared, that confident, and you have that much to learn from him, why wouldn’t you listen to him speak?” said manager Gabe Kapler. “Why wouldn’t you want to watch him go about his business and prepare for the season?”
They were probably wondering what kind of season is in store.
Arrieta was 40-14 with a 2.39 earned-run average and 426 strikeouts in 2015 and 2016 combined. In 2017, when 2 mph disappeared, he was 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA in 2017. However, his ERA was 2.26 in his last 14 starts, and that’s what the Phillies prefer to emphasize:
He figured it out.
“There are a lot of factors in this just beyond velocity or beyond what happened in the first half last year,” general manager Matt Klentak said.
“His second half was more like Jake Arrieta of the previous two years,” president Andy MacPhail agreed. “It’s not just him saying that. The proof is in the pudding. There’s so many things that we track today, that’s just one of them.”
So, yes, they track that 2 mph; and no, they haven’t found it, either. They don’t seem be worried. Not now.
But what if that 2 mph becomes 3?