Less than Jake

Something happened June 21, 2015, in Minneapolis. Nobody is talking about it, which makes you wonder if there’s some Roswell, X-Files, Men in Black kind of cover-up going on here. Martians? Government secret program? Magic? Everything is in play.

That day, Jake Arrieta took the mound against the Twins and, you know, he was just Jake Arrieta. Yep. He was good ol’ Jake from State Farm with his khaki 41-38 record and his khaki 4.34 ERA.

It’s hard to remember this far back but do you remember what most people were saying about Arrieta when the Orioles traded him to the Cubs back in 2013? Nothing. Sure, there were a few Orioles fans who were clinging to the various sparks of talent that Arrieta has shown, but nationally hardly anybody even knew Arrieta was in that deal. It was the Scott Feldman deal. The Orioles had traded flammable reliever Pedro Strop to get Feldman.

Jake Arrieta? He was a 27-year-old, one-time mega-prospect flapping around in Norfolk.

MORE: Arrieta spins second no-hitter  |   Ten Takeaways

“I’m below average right now,” Arrieta told the Norfolk reporters after the trade was made. “But I’ve got some time to work on it.”

He did work on it. From the start, Arrieta pitched much better in Chicago. He had a superb 2014 season. He only pitched 156 innings, but he struck out 167, and the league hit just .203 against him. He was good enough to make Orioles fans groan in agony but … was anyone really buying it? Arrieta was always a guy with great stuff; that’s why the scouts had loved him in the first place. How much had they loved him? Let’s get the quotes. He had “a fastball with the action to generate swings and misses” and a slider “that is a solid second pitch and is a plus at times” and a change-up that “shows flashes of being an out pitch.”

But for every flash of brilliance he displayed, for every swing-and-miss he got, there was a counter, a hanging slider crushed 440 feet or an 0-2 count that turned into a walk because Arrieta wouldn’t just challenge the hitter. When Arrieta took the mound on June 21, 2015, he was 29 years old. For the year, he was 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA. He had just come off a game in which he walked a career-high six batters. It seemed like this was it, Arrieta had arrived as much as he ever would, a solid but inconsistent pitcher who would have a fine but not particularly interesting career.

Then that something happened. What was it?

“Stuff was crisp,” Arrieta would say after that life-altering game. “It actually got better as the game wore on.”

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That day, Jake Arrieta threw his second career shutout, a 122-pitch masterpiece. He allowed four hits, walked none and struck out seven. After he had blundered an easy ground ball in the third inning, he seemed shaken — he promptly gave up a couple of deep fly balls that died at the warning track. But for the rest of the way, he overwhelmed the Twins. His fastball topped out at 97. He seemed to start every batter off with a breaking-ball strike.

“He had really good stuff,” Twins rookie Byron Buxton said. “He was on his game.”

“We got a little tentative as the game went on,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said.

“What he did today,” Torii Hunter said, “would shut anybody down.”

Even so, Arrieta was not the big story of the day. Dexter Fowler hit a grand slam for Chicago. Anthony Rizzo kept up his hot hitting. Also, Cubs mega-prospect Kyle Schwarber got another in what had been a series of big hits, and he was making the Cubs’ plan of sending him back to the minors look a little shortsighted.

Arrieta’s nice pitching performance, well, nobody could have possibly realized that it would set off an explosion like baseball has never seen.

* * *

How big an explosion? Well, let’s start with the numbers. Since June 21, 2015:

— Jake Arrieta is 20-1 with an 0.86 ERA. His only loss? He gave up three runs in six innings … and Cole Hamels threw a no-hitter for Philadelphia.

— All 24 of his starts have been quality starts, the second-longest streak since Deadball ended.

— He has pitched two no-hitters, four shutouts, and 14 games where he did not allow a run.

— He has allowed four — count ’em FOUR — home runs. He has HIT three home runs over the same span.

We could play around with these numbers for a long time because they are so staggering. The league is hitting .154 against him. His WHIP is an insane 0.719. On and on. But at this point, the only reasonable question left: Is this the greatest pitching stretch in the history of baseball?

Quick answer: Probably, yes, depending on how you judge. It’s hard to break down careers into 20-to-25 game stretches but using quality starts as our guide:

Bob Gibson from September 12, 1967, to July 30, 1968.

— He had 26 consecutive quality starts, which is the record that Arrieta chases. Over that time, Gibson threw eight shutouts, had an 0.90 ERA and allowed just five home runs in 229 innings*.

*In case you are curious, Gibson hit 24 career home runs, but none during that stretch.

Gibson had a stretch, from June 6 to July 25, that will likely never be touched. He pitched 10 games. He completed all 10. He won all 10. Eight of the 10 were shutouts. The other two he allowed one run. His ERA over the time: 0.20. That’s even better than Arrieta.

Chris Carpenter from May 12, 2005, to September 8, 2005.

— Carpenter had 22 straight quality starts and went 17-2 with a 1.66 ERA over the stretch.

Johan Santana from June 9, 2004, to September 24, 2004.

— Santana had 21 straight quality starts, went 18-2 with a 1.34 ERA and had a 199-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The American League was still scoring a LOT of runs in 2004, so this is even more impressive than it might seem.

Greg Maddux from June 27, 1997, to April 15, 1998.

— He threw 21 consecutive quality starts, went 11-2 with a 1.55 ERA. Again, this was in a high-scoring time, so as good as those numbers look, Maddux was even better than that.

Lon Warneke from April 12, 1933, to July 25, 1933.

— He’s worth mentioning because there are some similarities between him and Arrieta — – both big right-handed pitchers for the Cubs. Warneke threw 21 straight quality starts and had a 1.49 ERA over the stretch. He was not, however, particularly dominant, just very consistent.

Let’s throw in four others:

— Sandy Koufax in 1963 had a 19-game stretch with nine shutouts, a 1.49 ERA, and a 149-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Koufax was not a streaky pitcher, in part because he was typically better at Dodger Stadium than on the road, so he never really had an Arrieta-like run.

— Tom Seaver finished off 1971 with a crazy 12-game stretch, where he gave up just 11 runs in 107 innings (0.93 ERA) and then he picked it up in 1972 by allowing just one run in his first three starts.

— Don Drysdale famously threw six consecutive shutouts from May 14 to June 4 in 1968. He was excellent that whole year, though his best stretch was probably over 17 games, when he had a 1.05 ERA and allowed three homers in 137 innings. But nobody was scoring runs then. To tell you how different that time was, the Dodgers only went 9-8 in those 17 games.

— Orel Hershiser broke Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak in 1988, though his stretch of awesomeness was only about nine games — he went 7-1 with an 0.44 ERA and 0 homers in his last nine starts that year.

So there are your contenders. There were several dominating stretches during Deadball — Eddie Cicotte, in 1916-17, had 25 straight quality starts, and Walter Johnson, from September 1914 into July of the next year, had 24. But it’s not really comparable.

How does Arrieta’s stretch compare? Well, all due respect to these great pitchers, only Gibson’s incredible 26-game period of dominance from 1967 to 1968 seems close to what Arrieta is doing.

And as good as Gibson was, he didn’t have two no-hitters, a two-hitter, a three-hitter and a four-hitter in his stretch. He also pitched in a time when, as mentioned, nobody was scoring runs. The point is: We’ve never seen pitching quite like this.

Of course, yes, I see you Mets fans jumping up and down angrily. It’s true, you can’t talk about Arrieta’s dominance without mentioning that the Cardinals and particularly the Mets DID beat him up pretty good in the postseason last year. He dominated Pittsburgh to kick off the playoffs and started off well against St. Louis. He then gave up five runs to the Cardinals, including a two-run bomb to Jason Heyward.

And the Mets, yes, they crushed him from the very start: A single by Curtis Granderson, a double by David Wright, a homer by Daniel Murphy and, a little later, they tacked on another run. For those two games in October, Arrieta looked like, well, like the old Jake Arrieta. And so you still hear people saying that, while it has been amazing, Arrieta will still turn back into a pumpkin.

Of course, you could also say that Arrieta had just pitched so many innings he was burned out by the time he faced the Mets and Cardinals. You could say that a couple of rough games are inevitable, and he had them at the wrong time. Or you can say that, yes, Arrieta floundered in the playoffs, and now he’s REALLY ticked off. The no-hitter he threw Thursday night suggests that whatever happened in Minnesota that day last June isn’t wearing off any time soon.

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