Every time that Jake Arrieta does something great for the Cubs, there's a new chance for the baseball media world to kick Orioles fans in the teeth. They frequently avail themselves of this opportunity when it presents itself. Arrieta's second no-hitter of his career in his most recent start proved to be another one of these opportunities. It surely won't be the last chance they get to do so.
Arrieta will forever be the one who got away to O's fans. Given the sad state of the Orioles starting rotation over the last couple of seasons and Arrieta's wild success in that time, it's hard not to look at him and wonder what might have been.
Over his past three seasons, he's now posted a 1.99 ERA over 62 starts with a 0.898 WHIP. Arrieta threw four complete games last year; the Orioles combined for zero complete games last year. Even when you factor in the National League competition, it's nothing short of impressive, and a very long way from the 6.20 ERA he posted in his last full Orioles season.
The answer to the cavalry problem
The question is there even now: Why couldn't the cavalry succeed here? Out of the quartet of Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman, the Orioles ended up getting two and a half good seasons of starting pitching - all of those from Tillman. That's it.
The answer, or at least an answer, has come into clearer focus with a couple of recent articles. One of them you may have seen is an Arrieta profile from Sports Illustrated back in March.
The first paragraph of Tom Verducci's article likens Arrieta to quasi-mythical American frontier survivor Hugh Glass. The second paragraph draws a direct parallel between Arrieta and one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Christian eschatology. In the third paragraph, we are told by Arrieta's wife that he is known simply as "Beast."
Eventually, Verducci starts talking about actual baseball, and a culprit is fingered: former Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair, who served in that position from June 2011 to August 2013 - time in which Arrieta pitched a total of 37 games at the MLB level for the O's and pitched to an increasingly worse ERA each season. Regarding that time in his career, Arrieta told Verducci:
There were so many things in Baltimore not many people know about. I had struggles with my pitching coach. A lot of guys did. Three or four guys - Tillman, Matusz, [Zach] Britton - were just really uncomfortable in their own skins at the time, trying to be the guys they weren't. You can attest how difficult it is to try to reinvent your mechanics against the best competition in the world.
A lot of Verducci's article approaches the topic from what's almost an assumption that the Orioles were foolishly mistreating Arrieta all along, and they equally foolishly gave up on him too soon. This is supported here and there by anecdotes from players who faced Arrieta during some of these dark years, players who seemed to see the diamond waiting to be polished.
One example is that then-White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko is said to have told Chris Davis of Arrieta in April 2012, "That's the nastiest guy I've seen in the past five years."
Another comes from then-Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who had this to say after facing Arrieta during the 2013 season: "I remember, in 2013, I faced Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and most of the nastiest pitchers you could think of. The guy with the best stuff of all was Jake Arrieta."
Presumably, Konerko made his comment when he faced Arrieta on April 29, 2011. Based on that quote, you might expect to look at the box score and find one of those scattered great games that Arrieta could put together to tantalize you about his potential. This is not the case. On that day, Arrieta's line was this: 5 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR.
What about Ellis, who was more impressed by Arrieta than he was by Harvey or Fernandez, the latter of whom won the Rookie of the Year award that season? Again, you'd think Ellis may have witnessed Arrieta looking like Sandy Koufax returned to the mound. Ellis saw Arrieta on April 21, 2013. Ellis was so impressed by a day in which Arrieta pitched this line: 4 IP, 2 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, 6 SO, 1 HBP.
Actually, Ellis also saw Arrieta post-Cubs trade in 2013, on August 26, 2013, when Arrieta's line looked like this: 5 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 3 SO. Whatever the Cubs did for him, it wasn't an instant transformation.
These guys saw the same maddening Arrieta with whom Baltimore fans were all too familiar. The annals of baseball are littered with pitchers who have great stuff who can just never harness it.
In and of itself, Arrieta flourishing there after failing here doesn't say a whole lot, no matter how impressed Verducci is with Arrieta's Pilates workouts. Heck, maybe it was the lack of Pilates that was holding him back all along.
Corroboration from a second cavalry member
What's new after Arrieta's recent no-hitter is that a second member of the cavalry has weighed in on Adair's tenure with the Orioles. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports published an article on Monday in which he discussed the legendary streak Arrieta's fired off over his last 24 regular season starts: a 20-1 record and a 0.86 ERA. That's nuts.
The interesting thing about this for O's fans is that Britton is quoted in the article, discussing that dark period for the cavalry. Speaking critically of what Passan sums up as a cookie-cutter approach, Britton said:
They took away the individual approach to everything. Things we did extremely well in the minor leagues to get to the big leagues - we were told that just doesn't work here. And you're like, ‘That's kind of weird, right?' You don't just reinvent yourself in the big leagues. That was the struggle. And the struggle, as we got older, was trying to get back to what made us what we were before.
Britton agrees that he, Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman were all suffering underneath Adair at the time. That's pretty serious stuff, and maybe it is a possible explanation for Adair's mysterious departure in the middle of the 2013 season, and why Adair has been out of baseball since then. At some point, maybe enough was enough.
These are some fairly savage critiques, or at least they're being treated as such by the baseball writers who are making use of these quotes to paint the Orioles as a bunch of blundering dunderheads who ruin every pitcher they come across.
Notably, Britton does insist that things are different now with the pitching/bullpen coaching duo of Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, who publicly espouse different approaches, with individual styles and strengths being emphasized rather than some one-size-fits-all method of trying to assemble pitchers off an assembly line.
That's a good thing, though Wallace and Chiti's success with the 2014 rotation certainly didn't carry over all the way to future years.
It's a little too easy to blame it all on Adair
Was it really as bad as all of that under Adair? Perhaps for Britton and Arrieta it truly was. However, being so laser focused on those two guys ignores the fact that the 2012 season was actually pretty good for the O's, and a big part of that was the out-of-nowhere contributions of a number of unheralded pitchers.
In the bullpen, for instance, a quintet of relievers really flourished, some of them for the first time in their careers. That included the closer, Jim Johnson, a guy who no one really thought about and then suddenly he had 51 saves at year's end.
In the rotation, there was Jason Hammel, whom the O's were memorably ridiculed by ESPN's Keith Law for acquiring. Hammel proved to be a valuable member of the rotation, the only O's pitcher to start two games in the ALDS against the Yankees that year. Miguel Gonzalez came from the Mexican League to Norfolk and went on to become a solid starter for the team.
Even Tillman, who was name-dropped by both Arrieta and Britton as being among the Adair-sufferers, finally found success as a starting pitcher at the MLB level in the second half of that season, success that continued for the next two seasons afterwards.
These were things that also happened under the aegis of Adair. The Orioles were able to turn these pitchers, whose pitching arsenals were very diverse, into success stories that season. If Adair was the one great ruiner of pitchers, would any of that still happened?
Well, maybe. It could be that all of those gentlemen succeeded in spite of Adair rather than because of him, that they were able to work around Adair where Arrieta, Britton, or Matusz never could. Still, it's important to keep in mind that reality is generally more complicated than ready-made narratives make it out to be. Maybe it turns out that the others were just more receptive to Adair's message or philosophy.
There was definitely something that caused the cavalry to never turn out to be the cavalry. The belief of Arrieta and Britton that Adair was a big factor is significant. They were there. They would know more than me. But not even they know everything - their personal involvement means their recollections aren't exactly unbiased.
The O's recent track record is not encouraging you to think they've fixed what needed to be fixed. That much is still concerning. Maybe things are getting better and that just hasn't had a chance to show itself yet. I won't be holding my breath.
If we're lucky, four years from now we'll be reading in Sports Illustrated about how the Orioles were able to nurture Kevin Gausman into a Cy Young-caliber pitcher, rather than reading about how Gausman failed here but blossomed elsewhere. That's a topic for another day.