Jake Arrieta isn’t the youngest player on Team USA, but he is the only professional player on the squad without experience above Class A.
But as Arrieta and San Diego State rising junior Steven Strasburg have shown, mid-90s fastballs and plus sliders work pretty well against any hitters.
Arrieta, a 22-year-old righthander in the Orioles’ farm system, pitched six shutout innings against China this morning, striking out six and allowing just two hits. Granted, at 1-4 China isn’t one of the elite teams at the Olympics, but Arrieta’s performance was still dominant.
“I think the reason I was successful was because I had pretty good command of my fastball,” Arrieta said in a release from USA Baseball. “In the later innings I was throwing breaking balls for strikes and I think I could have done a little better job of throwing more off-speed pitches earlier on in the count. The big thing that helped me today was the command of my fastball to overpower hitters with it and using the off-speed when I had to.”
Playing this season for high Class A Frederick, Arrieta held down a 2.87 ERA in 113 innings with 120 strikeouts. Arrieta’s command hasn’t been flawless—he walked 51 batters in 113 innings, a rate that’s a touch high for a 22-year-old former college pitcher in high Class A.
Arrieta throws a fastball that can sit at 94-96 mph in short stints, although when stretched out into longer outings his velocity is more regularly in the low- to mid-90s. He complements his fastball with a tight, mid-80s slider, a changeup and an occasional curveball.
“I try to stay with my fastball as long as I can into a game,” Arrieta said. “If I can use it into the fourth or fifth inning without throwing any off-speed pitches, I will, just because you don’t want to let those hitters see your off-speed if they don’t have to see it. But I will throw them early in the count, so hitters can’t sit on my fastball. Even if you throw 100 mph, if they’re sitting on it, it’s an easy pitch to hit. I do like to throw breaking balls in 0-0 counts just to keep guys from sitting on a fastball.”
Arrieta diverged from that philosophy earlier this month in Durham, N.C., where Team USA and Canada played a four-game exhibition series.
“He’s got an excellent arm,” said USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said after Arrieta’s start in Durham. “He’s got good breaking stuff too, but he needs really to stay on his fastball and establish it. But he’s got a fine arm. You’re throwing 94-95, you’ve got to establish that and stay with it, and then the fastball gets that much better.”
When Arrieta was a junior at Texas Christian in 2007, scouts saw some flaws in Arrieta’s pitching mechanics, which the Orioles felt were correctable. Since signing, according to Arrieta, he has been able to successfully implement those corrections.
“Mechanically the only big thing I’ve changed is focusing most of my weight in my balance point on the inner part of my foot, on my push-off foot, which helps me take everything to the plate,” Arrieta said. “I don’t throw across my body as much as I used to.”
Since turning pro, Arrieta has learned to pound the inner half of the plate more frequently, and he’s made other minor adaptations as well.
“I got acclimated to pro ball in the (Arizona) Fall League a little bit, had some success out there, so that gave me a lot of confidence coming into this season,” Arrieta said. “I’d say the big thing is just the grind of all the games, and kind of changing your workout regimen because in college I worked out three days a week. In pro ball, you can’t work out that much. You just don’t have enough time on a five-day rotation. Just kind of tweaking my workout routine and things like that have really been the biggest challenge for me.
“You can’t do as much because you don’t want to be sore for your next start. In college I could lift pretty heavy because I had six days off between starts. You’ve got to kind of tone it down a little bit—it’s lighter weight, higher reps. It’s trying to maintain strength and not trying to gain strength.”
Nearly one year after signing for $1.1 million as a fifth-round pick, Arrieta is an Olympian. Arrieta already has a gold medal from pitching with USA Baseball’s college national team two years ago in Cuba, where the Americans won the FISU (International University Sports Federation) World Championship in the finals over Taiwan.
“I was actually in Frederick, and our manager called me into his office,” Arrieta said of how he learned he was heading to China. “He asked me, ‘What did you do wrong?’ I was kind of confused, I didn’t what he was talking about. I was like, ‘I don’t know. What happened?’ He was like, ‘Well, you made the Olympic team.’ I was kind of shocked at first. It took a while for it to sink in, but over the next couple days, I had time to sit down and think about it. It brought back a lot of memories from the (College) National team two years ago. I’m just ecstatic that I have the opportunity to be a part of this once again.”