So a few eyebrows were raised on Monday when Jake Arrieta missed the strike zone on four straight pitches to Derek Norris to start the second inning after working a perfect first against the Padres in the Cubs' 10-2 loss. They needn't have been.
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Arrieta is a pitcher who always has a plan. After he faced only six Indians in his two-inning spring debut last Wednesday, his plan on Monday was to get some work pitching out of the stretch, even if he had to give the hitters a little help.
Although Arrieta didn't say he put Norris on base deliberately, he made it clear he didn't mind him being there.
"It was intentionally unintentional, I guess," Arrieta said. "A good situation to work on."
This is what this Spring Training has become for the guy who last season turned in what may be the most dominant second half in Major League history. It's an exercise to work on his mastery of the craft, not a battle to get ready for the Opening Night assignment that awaits him in Anaheim.
Arrieta had never thrown 180 innings in a pro season before carrying the Cubs to the National League Championship Series a year ago. He piled up 248 2/3 innings along the way -- 229 in the regular season and another 19 2/3 against the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets in the postseason.
How would Arrieta bounce back? Arguably, that's the biggest question facing the Cubs, who are widely regarded as baseball's strongest team after the offseason additions of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey.
But Arrieta was satisfied that he would be just fine long before he arrived in Arizona for camp. He made that clear after the four-inning outing against the Padres, in which he gave up one run, on a high-sky double that easily could have been grabbed by left fielder Jorge Soler. Arrieta struck out five and walked two, and now has only three more outings before it counts, including one he'll make in a Minor League camp game next week.
"The juices start flowing once the season gets here," Arrieta said. "Arm strength is going to jump up a tick once the bright lights are on, which is the case for everybody. That's kind of the light at the end of the tunnel. That's what we're all looking for these next couple of weeks -- getting through it healthy, getting our pitchers built up as far as arm strength is concerned, getting our hitters some at-bats, then we'll be ready. Everybody is going about it the right way."
Arrieta did seem to hit a wall at the end of his magical 2015 season, giving up four runs to both the Cardinals and Mets after allowing only seven runs in his previous 13 starts. I asked him on Monday if he was curious how he'd feel back in game action this spring.
"Not at all," Arrieta said. "I knew after a couple weeks without throwing, letting the body kind of recover, once I jumped into my training and started playing catch, it was back to normal."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is blown away by how consistently Arrieta has been repeating his delivery this spring. It's a little bit of a crossfire motion that finishes with his left leg landing farther on the third-base side of the mound than normal, and with most pitchers, that extra effort makes it tough to line up all the moving parts.
Arrieta has minimized issues with his mechanics since the Cubs acquired him from the Orioles in a 2013 trade, throwing strike after strike with his fastball to set up a slider that dives like a fighter plane. The credit, Maddon believes, belongs as much to conditioning techniques that Arrieta practices with fervor, including Pilates, as to his technique itself.
"You talk to everybody who watches him, [and they'll say] it's kind of freaky," Maddon said. "I don't think anybody else could do what he does. In terms of his flexibility, the ridiculous strength all over his body, how he takes care of himself, all of that stuff matters. He's got a little [throwing] across his body -- which you would never teach anybody -- but because of his prep work, being as flexible as he is, I think he can do it."
Among the tricks that allowed Arrieta to go 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA last season was saving his best velocity for the stretch run. According to BrooksBaseball.net, his fastball averaged 94.3 mph in April but was up to a season-high 95.6 mph in September.
Maddon wants to help Arrieta repeat that strong finish in 2016, with a little more shelf life for October. He vows to pull Arrieta from games quicker this season than he did a year ago.
"I would say we've already talked about this, [but] maybe the largest difference this season is the awareness that I may want to take him out sooner with a lead, just to try to build up more for the end of the year," Maddon said. "He's more aware what it's going to feel like when you're throwing 200-plus innings, with what's riding on the line, you want to be as fresh as you can."
The Cubs hope this includes a ride through the NLCS and into the World Series.
Count Arrieta in on that.
"The fatigue is just one of those things you can't necessarily account for," Arrieta said. "That innings jump was difficult. I had to just deal with it by going through some fatigue at the end. Now I've obviously bounced back. I'm in better shape than I've ever been in, and I'm ready for another 250 [innings]."
Like Gary Pressy on the Wrigley Field organ, that's music to Cubs fans' ears.