SARASOTA, Fla. — This time last year, right-hander Jake Arrieta was as excited as he had ever been about his professional career. At 26, he was about to be make his first Opening Day start for the Orioles, the only organization he had ever known.
He was in the midst of a spring in which he seemingly had separated himself from the rest of the organization's mid-20s pitchers — once dubbed the cavalry.
But just as quickly as Arrieta's star seemed to shoot across the baseball sky, it plummeted. After allowing just two hits in seven scoreless innings on Opening Day, he gave up four or more runs in nine of his next 12 starts. By early July, Arrieta was sent to the minors. He returned in September as a reliever and was left off the playoff roster.
No Oriole has more talent or a better arsenal than Arrieta, yet he is maddeningly inconsistent from game to game, inning to inning and, at times, batter to batter.
So when Arrieta stormed into training camp this year and quickly took the lead in the competition for the fifth starter spot — he's allowed just three earned runs in 17 1/3 Grapefruit League innings — it was met with cynicism as much as optimism.
Arrieta's had a run like this before, so does this one mean anything?
He says it does. He believes that critics and supporters alike — Orioles manager Buck Showalter, at times, has fallen into both categories — will see a more focused and successful Arrieta in 2013.
The pitcher sat down for a Q&A this week in which he addresses his brutal 2012 and why he believes this season will be different:
How do you handle the critics who say you won't figure it out?
I have and I always will be my biggest critic. There was a point in time last year when things got a little bit out of control as far as being able to manage difficult or big situations that came up at a point in the game. It was frustrating for many reasons. There were games I'd go out and be dominant and successful for the first four or five innings. And then I think there was a slight lapse of concentration. I've really learned how … you have to approach the entire game. You have to be 100 percent completely locked in; concentration level turned up to the max, from start to finish. There were times when I got into a situation where the ball was just rolling, everything was going well. And there was a point where the concentration would just waver for a short period of time. And it wasn't intentional. Every time I would take the mound I had the same mindset. I'd throw every pitch with conviction no matter the circumstances. But even though I had that mindset, the concentration level wasn't where it needed to be. I've got over that point and I really have learned a lot this spring.
What have you learned?
Each outing I've been thinking about one thing and one thing only: Executing each pitch as if it is going to be my last. Keeping the same competitive mindset, but regardless what happened in the past — past inning, past outing, past four or five outings — the only thing I can control is right here and right now. Since I started doing that, it's almost as if my full ability combined with my stuff is able to translate. That's what it is about. Finding what it takes to get everything to come out to show and, in the end, get the results you are looking for. And I've started to see that this spring.
Are you sick of hearing, Jake Arrieta is talented, but …?
Yeah, it's frustrating. But it couldn't be any more true. I feel the same way the staff has from time to time with me. The fans. Pretty much everybody who has watched me pitch. To know what type of outing I can have and then to see the results that I have. So I couldn't agree more with the critics on a lot of things. That's why I have worked so hard to make those changes. It hasn't been easy. It hasn't always been a fun process. But I have stuck with it. There is really nothing that will derail me from where I know I am going. So it's a long process, and I'm still going through the process of trying to find that consistency outing after outing. But I'm right there.
Buck seems to point out things you need to do better no matter how well you do in a given outing. What's your take on how and why he pushes you so hard?
For starters, pretty much everything he says or has said in the past and this spring is true, regardless if it's harsh criticism or not. He's speaking the truth. And he doesn't hurt my feelings. I take what he says, the stuff that I hear, and I work on it. He's very good at picking out things, for me specifically, that I need to work on. I haven't really disagreed with him yet. But I feel like that's kind of how we communicate or how he communicates with me.
Do you think it's because he thinks you can take it?
It doesn't really bother me at all. I don't think he does it maliciously. It is what it is. Really, no problems here and he knows how I feel about it.
If I had told you last March, as you were preparing for your first Opening Day start, that you'd end up with a 6.20 ERA, spend two months in the minors and be left off the playoff roster, how would you have reacted?
I probably would have punched you in the face if you had said that to me (he laughs). No, I've talked to a lot of people about that. If you told me I'd be fighting for the fifth spot the following spring training, I would have given you a strange look and I might have said something a little harsh to you. But it is what it is. Going through what I went through last year and still being a part of a winning team and a winning atmosphere, being part of a team who really wanted me, it was a very strange mix of emotions. And it was very difficult. It was. It was a very difficult year, but I'm in this position now because of it. And I think everybody is going to be happy with the way things turn out. Because of the experience. You can't put a price tag on certain experiences in your career. I look forward to just being one of the guys that helps this team win a World Series one day. That's our ultimate goal.