In the roughly six weeks that Phillies manager Gabe Kapler has had to get acquainted with Jake Arrieta, a few characteristics have been self-evident.
Wipeout sinker? Seen it.
Nasty cutter? Yep, seen that, too.
Leadership qualities? Check.
But in his first two Phillies starts, Arrieta seldom got hitters to swing and miss. It happened only nine times in 162 pitches, a 5.6 percent whiff rate that paled in comparison to his 9.0 percent career average and fed the narrative that perhaps the 32-year-old’s days of dominance are over.
“I haven’t even noticed it,” Kapler said, dismissing the statistical dip to the proverbial small sample size provided by the first month of any season.
Still, it was striking to watch Arrieta miss bats Thursday night in a series-opening 7-0 thumping of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In chilly conditions, and with the wind whipping so hard to right field that any ball in the air had even more chance than usual to leave Citizens Bank Park, the righthander racked up 12 swings and misses in 97 pitches. He allowed only one hit — an infield single, no less — in seven innings and struck out 10 batters, four more than his total from those two aforementioned starts.
“That was fun,” catcher Jorge Alfaro said. “Just put a finger down and he hit the glove. That was easy.”
The Phillies supported Arrieta with five runs in the second inning on Rhys Hoskins’ solo homer and a pair of two-out singles by Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera on full-count pitches from Pirates starter Jameson Taillon. Hernandez’s hit cleared the bases, with J.P. Crawford hustling from first and third-base coach Dusty Wathan making an alert read to wave him home. The Phils added two runs in the fifth on RBI singles by Herrera and Crawford.
But Arrieta’s dominance was the show-stopper — and precisely the sort of performance from a former Cy Young Award winner that the Phillies expected when they took the plunge and signed him as a free agent midway through spring training.
Arrieta came within two walks and a Francisco Cervelli grounder in the hole between shortstop and third base of being perfect. Instead, he settled for becoming the 10th pitcher in Phillies history to strike out at least 10 batters while allowing no more than one hit, joining Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf, Tommy Greene, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning, Harvey Haddix and Curt Simmons.
It was far and away the most complete outing yet for Arrieta. While other starters who signed late in the offseason or during spring training have struggled early in the season (Minnesota’s Lance Lynn and Baltimore’s Alex Cobb, to name two), Arrieta gave up only two earned runs in both his Phillies debut April 8 against the Miami Marlins and April 14 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Clearly, though, Arrieta was still rounding into form. Neither outing was nearly as eye-opening.
“Combining spring training and my three starts so far, that’s probably only five or six starts,” Arrieta said. “I was a little behind, but now I’m caught up.”
Arrieta’s sinker — typically the bellwether pitch for how effective he’s going to be in any given start and the pitch that he credits for turning around his career when he joined the Chicago Cubs in 2013 — was devastatingly effective, as Pirates rightfielder Gregory Polanco could attest. Polanco swung through three sinkers in his first two at-bats — and four pitches overall, including a wicked 79-mph curveball — en route to a pair of strikeouts.
But Arrieta had it all going against Pirates hitters with whom he has great familiarity from his years with the Cubs. In the fourth inning, he mowed through the middle of the lineup, fanning Starling Marte on a cutter, getting Josh Bell to ground out and whiffing Corey Dickerson on a sinker. Arrieta permitted three base runners, none of whom advanced beyond first base.
Arrieta has gotten similar results before. He no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 30, 2015, and the Cincinnati Reds on April 21, 2016, and has won five of his nine career postseason starts. It’s difficult to compare those starts to a midweek game on an April night that felt more like October, but Arrieta admitted to a familiar feeling.
“Other than being able to locate the change-up a little better,” he said, “it was about as good as I’ve been.”
Arrieta set down the final nine batters he faced and 17 of the last 18. And while he was cruising, Kapler took advantage of a one-touchdown lead to lift his ace after seven innings, the hearty souls among the announced crowd of 19,071 offering their applause.
“Some questions earlier about swings and misses and were there concerns about not getting whiffs. There’s not concerns, and tonight was an indication that he’s going to continue to miss bats,” Kapler said. “You’re going to get excited about Jake going out there every fifth day if he’s sort of the mid-range version of himself, which is still a very good starting pitcher. And if he’s a little bit better than his average self, he’s unhittable.”
In his third Phillies start, it was hardly hyperbolic to use that word to describe Arrieta.