Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta pitched six scoreless innings Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He lasted longer than any Orioles pitcher this spring.
He struck out a preseason-best nine batters. He threw 65 of his 88 pitches for strikes – that’s a mind-numbing 74 percent of all pitches tossed for strikes.
He said afterward that he believes he has done enough to earn the fifth spot in the rotation, but he knows that’s up to manager Buck Showalter and his staff.
And what did Showalter think of Arrieta’s performance?
Well, for one, he thought Arrieta needed to throw more strikes from the windup, when there was no one on base. He pointed out that eight of the nine strikeouts came out of the stretch.
That was what stuck out in Showalter’s mind. And when Showalter was asked point blank whether Arrieta had done enough to win the fifth starter’s job, the manager would only say Arrieta’s done enough to stay in the competition.
So does Showalter not like Arrieta?
No, it’s the contrary. Arrieta is Showalter’s kind of player: He is smart. He works hard. He keeps himself in great shape. He hates to lose. He wants the ball. He has no fear. And, most important, he is exceptionally talented.
But Arrieta has never put it all together. He has a 5.33 career ERA in 64 big league games (compared to a 3.05 ERA in 70 minor league games).
Anyone who watches him pitch or spends any time around him knows how good Arrieta should be. His inconsistency is maddening given his talent.
On Thursday, Arrieta threw his fastball in the mid-90s. His sinker had serious movement. His curveball dropped off the table. And his biting slider might have been his best out-pitch.
Yet Showalter commented on the lack of strikes from the windup. Because Showalter knows what makes his players tick. And he knows that he needs to keep stepping on Arrieta’s neck. Keep making Arrieta feel like he’s not where he needs to be.
Some athletes may not be able to handle the constant challenge. And, ultimately, Arrieta may not be able to live up to his boss’ exacting standards.
But Showalter has tried other approaches. He made Arrieta last year’s Opening Day starter, and Arrieta couldn’t hold onto the job.
Showalter sent him down to the minors straighten himself out. And at first Arrieta regressed before he once again proved he doesn’t have much left to learn at Triple-A.
He’s 27 now – that’s two years older than 2011 National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Arrieta isn’t a kid or a prospect anymore. This is a crucial year for him. He either is an effective major league starter or he isn’t. That needs to be determined in 2013.
There’s no question that Arrieta should win the rotation spot. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 14 2/3 innings. He has a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 Grapefruit League innings.
But Showalter’s not saying it. He’s gonna make Arrieta working, keep guessing.
Showalter has a plan for everything. And, for Arrieta and the Orioles’ sake, he needs this one to work.