Arrieta's run arguably greatest in MLB history
Right-hander's prolonged period of stellar pitching puts him among elite group
This is the age of exaggeration, a time when "Everything is Awesome" if you choose to believe it is, a time when facts can easily be conflated with myths in the immediacy of our social media consumption, a time when NBC has a TV program called "Best Time Ever."
So just know that this next thought is not delivered to poke or provoke but rather, hopefully, to engage and enlighten:
If you examine the numbers and consider the narrative, Jake Arrieta, who gets the ball for Game 3 of the Cubs' National League Division Series against the Cardinals on Monday night (TBS, 6 p.m. ET), is in the midst of as great a prolonged period of superior pitching as this game has seen.
Now, before we get to the (hopefully) convincing calculations, let's just offer a not-so-subtle reminder of a not-so-secret fact: The Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908 and haven't even been to it since 1945. Nine out of 10 historians agree that's a pretty long time, and that, of course, colors any conversation about these Cubs and the men trying to guide them to baseball's Promised Land. Pitch a team into and through a postseason, and you're a hero. Pitch the Chicago Cubs into and through a postseason, and you've crossed the line into legend terrain.
Arrieta, clearly, has a ways to go on that front.
But he has already posted the lowest second-half ERA in history and followed it up by becoming the first pitcher ever to throw a postseason shutout with double-digit strikeouts and zero walks.
In doing so, he's enlivened this organization in a way a notable Cub of October's past can appreciate.
In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe played the role of Arrieta, joining the club in a midseason trade with Cleveland and winning each of his last 14 regular-season decisions to conclude a Cy Young season as the club clinched the NL East. Thus ended a 39-year October drought that had been prolonged by the September collapse of the 1969 team.
"I'll never forget Ron Santo standing in front of me and grabbing my shirt with big crocodile tears in his eyes and thanking me for helping those fans to forget about 1969," Sutcliffe said. "Honestly, I didn't really even know about '69. I had never heard of the black cat, and I didn't know what had happened. But I hope that when this postseason is over with, I can walk up to Jake, as well as Jon Lester and David Ross, and do the same thing to them that Ron Santo did to me."
Of course, Sutcliffe and the Cubs ran into trouble in the ensuing NLCS with the Padres. And that's what made Arrieta's Wild Card clout so special. It's one thing to inspire so much breathless anticipation for your postseason debut by doing what Arrieta did down the stretch of the regular season; it's another to back it up with such a heroic, historic performance -- especially in a loser-goes-home setting.
And that postseason start, singular though it may be at the moment, is enough for us to assert that what Arrieta has done these past couple months is as good as anything the game has seen.
Consider the following:
• Over his last 10 starts, including that one-and-done Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, Arrieta has gone 9-0 with a 0.24 ERA and .132 opponents' average. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, in the time since earned runs became an official statistic in 1913, the number of other pitchers who have had an ERA that low and an opponents' average that low over that many starts is precisely zero.
• In each of those 10 starts, Arrieta has gone at least six innings without allowing more than one earned run. The only longer such streak in history belongs to Bob Gibson, who had 11 such outings from June 6-July 30, 1968 (0.27 ERA over 99 innings). The only knock on Gibson's run, compared to Arrieta's, is that it took place on a higher mound and did not include a postseason start. The fact that Gibson's '68 season is invoked at all here ought to tell you how special Arrieta's surge has been.
• Also in every game of this 10-start stretch, Arrieta has compiled a Game Score of at least 68. The only guys to compile a longer such streak all did it in 11 straight -- Johan Santana (2004), Jack Morris (1983) and Gaylord Perry (1975) -- but none of those streaks included a postseason outing.
• It goes back further. Arrieta has made 13 starts since the beginning of August, allowing just four earned runs total to compile a 0.37 ERA. That's the lowest ERA for a starting pitcher from August onward by a long shot -- the next-closest is Spud Chandler, who had a 0.78 mark in 1943.
• Arrieta's regular season ended with 20 consecutive quality starts (three earned runs or less over six innings or more), the longest such streak ever to end a season. His teammate Lester had 19 straight with Boston and Oakland last year but gave up six earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his only postseason start.
The game has some runs that compare to Arrieta's current one. A few that immediately come to mind …
Pedro Martinez began his 2000 season (right in the thick of an era of inflated offense) in Boston by posting a 0.99 ERA and striking out 121 batters in 91 1/3 innings over 12 starts. But that was obviously not in the thick of the postseason chase.
Mike Scott ended his 1986 season with the Astros by compiling a 1.64 ERA over 11 starts, including two in the postseason. But that ERA actually looks inflated next to Arrieta's.
Madison Bumgarner had an incredible 1.03 ERA in 52 2/3 postseason innings last year. But he was substantially more human (3.08 ERA) in four starts that September.
Really, the best comparable to what Arrieta is doing is Orel Hershiser in 1988. Hershiser ended that season with a 59-inning scoreless streak and a 0.44 ERA over his last nine starts. He followed that up by owning October (1.05 ERA over 42 2/3 innings). And if you add up his last 13 appearances, he went 12-0 with a majestic 0.39 ERA.
That's an inordinately high bar, and, again, credit to Arrieta for inspiring us to even bring it up.
But here's the thing: Hershiser's August that year began with three subpar showings, as he allowed 14 earned runs in 15 innings. Add those in, and he had a 1.48 ERA over his last 16 games.
So at the very least, Arrieta has a head start on Hershiser as he ventures into his next October outing. That he's doing it for a franchise looking to shake off such an ignominious streak just makes it all the more fascinating.
"It's easy to talk about momentum, but it's harder to maintain it," Hershiser said. "Every day you put in the work to look to lengthen the run. Does it get easier? I'm not sure it does. It's a mental challenge to keep it going as much as a physical challenge, knowing that the baseball probabilities will get you. So you just keep your focus knowing that you can make one more sinker low and away and one more breaking ball in the dirt."
Arrieta keeps defying the probabilities. And it's no exaggeration to say we can't wait to see how far he can take this remarkable run.
Paul Casella, Ken Gurnick and Richard Justice contributed to this column.