Strong body and mind fuel Cubs' Arrieta

Right-hander benefits from sports psychology program he started at TCU

Strong body and mind fuel Cubs' Arrieta

MESA, Ariz. -- One day during his sophomore year at Texas Christian University, Jake Arrieta and his baseball teammates found themselves in a dark room, lying on the floor, their eyes closed.

"I was like, 'What are we doing here?'" Arrieta said about his introduction to sports psychology. "But as soon as you start to accept it, you understand the importance of it. With the dark room and the voice in the corner, it was all about visualization and being able to see things happen before they do."

The voice belonged to noted performance coach Brian Cain, who had started working with the TCU program that year.

"Everybody here has the ability to throw a fastball down and away or throw a breaking ball in the dirt for a swing and a miss," Arrieta said. "But are we able to stay in that moment and understand what we're trying to accomplish, and see it in our mind before we execute and then make the pitch? If you can see it before you execute, that only increases your chance for success."

Now entering his second full season with the Cubs, Arrieta embraced the importance of strengthening his mind as well as working on mechanics. In his sophomore season in 2006, he led the nation with 14 wins, compiled a 2.35 ERA in 19 appearances, and he followed that up with a spot on Team USA, where he was 4-0 and helped his squad win a gold medal in Cuba.

TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle saw the change in Arrieta and the rest of his players after the sessions.

"The saying is, 'You can't be in control of your performance until you're in control of yourself,'" said Schlossnagle, who was in Phoenix for a baseball series against Arizona State. "That's really helped all of our players. Jake's learned from that, and he's smart enough to learn that applies at the Major League level, too."

Arrieta's stellar start

Arrieta applied the lessons last season with the Cubs and went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 25 starts. He carried three no-hit bids into the seventh inning. Strong body plus strong mind equals good results.

"Sports psychology or mental training has been viewed as a weakness, and I think that's a pretty silly way to look at it," Arrieta said, echoing a message manager Joe Maddon relayed to the Cubs.

"There's so many things running through your mind," Arrieta said. "If you can formulate a game plan that works for you and allows you to block outside distractions and get to what matters, that's how the talent is able to come out. Really being able to harness my mental approach has kind of taken me to the next level, and obviously maturing as a player and a teammate and as a person. Those are things that are necessary to achieve success in this game. There's no other way around it."

Schlossnagle was looking for any edge when he brought in Cain, who has helped several college programs and is a disciple of sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, who the Cubs have hired as a consultant.

"It's become such a part of the culture of our program that guys buy into it pretty quick," Schlossnagle said Saturday.

Arrieta did. He can identify the "yellow lights" that warn things are starting to go in a negative direction.

"The yellow light is, say, a leadoff walk and then a guy hits a double," he said. "Then it's, 'OK, how do I assess the situation before it gets to a 'red light,' where everything hits the fan, and before you know it you're in the dugout after giving up five runs and saying, 'How … did that happen?'"

Some pitchers write reminders under the bill of their cap. Arrieta has a couple. One is "ACE," which stands for "Acting Cures Everything."

"If you don't feel good, act like you feel good," he said. "You don't want to present to the opposition, 'This guy is unsure of himself.' If you show that before the game starts, you're already beat."

Another reminder is "GOYA," which is "Get Off Your [behind]." That translates into a lot of things, including taking charge of a situation and making something happen.

Schlossnagle remembers the first time he saw Arrieta. The coach was scouting a relief pitcher at Weatherford Junior College. Arrieta was the starter that day.

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"I called my assistant coach and said, 'I don't know about the guy I'm supposed to see, but this guy [Arrieta] is really darn good,'" Schlossnagle said.

The Orioles made Arrieta their fifth-round pick in 2007, and he eventually became their Opening Day starter in '12. The Cubs acquired him in July 2013.

Before coming to Arizona for Spring Training this month, Arrieta took part in a TCU alumni game and talked to the pitchers. The topic? Stay focused on what you do on the field.

"The hype surrounding the Draft in college baseball is something that can kind of deter you from what your goals are, and I fell victim to that," Arrieta said. "As a college player, it's hard not to get caught up in it, because it's exciting. Their season is something they need to experience each moment as passionately as they can, because it'll be gone before they realize it."

Schlossnagle welcomed the advice.

"It's easy for a 44-year-old college coach to tell them that, but they all want to reach the ultimate goal," Schlossnagle said. "Sometimes players can end up pitching for the [Major League scouts] behind home plate instead of the guys on your team. Jake went through that a little bit his junior year. His junior year wasn't as good as his sophomore year, so he's a really good example of how to do a better job handling that."

Arrieta isn't the only big leaguer who supports TCU. So do alumni like the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, the Padres' Andrew Cashner and the Royals' Brandon Finnegan, who last year became the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the World Series in the same season.

"We take pride in being a former Frog," Arrieta said.

Arrieta won't forget what he learned at TCU, both on the field and in that dark room.

"I think it's part of my job to continue to help them and progress that program," Arrieta said. "Whatever I can do, I feel I need to do to help because of what TCU did for my career."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.