Former major league manager Roger Craig said it best in describing starting pitchers taking the mound for their respective teams on Opening Day.
There are Opening Day pitchers and pitchers who start on Opening Day.
With all due respect to Jake Arrieta, most would say he’d fall into the latter category as he prepares to take the hill against the Minnesota Twins to begin the 2012 season on Friday. The 26-year-old started the home opener last year and now takes the next step after former No. 1 pitcher Jeremy Guthrie was dealt to the Colorado Rockies shortly before the start of spring training.
It’s an honor that Arrieta isn’t taking lightly, even with the Orioles expected to once again lag behind the rest of the American League East.
“To be the guy who represents the team as the Opening Day starter is a big deal,” Arrieta said. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to setting the tone for the year.”
It’s a tone Arrieta hopes is drastically different from the end of last season when he missed the final two months due to elbow surgery. The right-hander arrived in Sarasota healthy and won the Opening Day competition put forth by manager Buck Showalter despite an up-and-down spring.
Arrieta pitched to a 6.14 earned run average in 14 2/3 Grapefruit League inning, which included two poor starts against the Pittsburgh Pirates. However, the most encouraging sign for the former TCU standout was pitching without pain in his right elbow for the first time in years. It resulted in a fastball that sat in the mid-90s and occasionally reached 97 miles per hour in a couple outings.
His talent has never come into question despite a 4.88 career ERA in his first 40 major league starts where he compiled a 16-14 record.
“Jake’s always had great stuff,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “Now, it’s just a matter of him maturing and getting to where he can give us the best chance to win. I think Jake’s done a great job this offseason of really taking that No. 1 spot and really feeling like he can go out there and win every time out there.”
His command has plagued him throughout his career, as Arrieta has averaged 4.4 walks per nine innings pitched in the major leagues. Pitching into deep counts has often elevated his pitch count and forced early exits — even in games in which he was pitching well.
Arrieta struck out 12 and walked only four batters in his spring outings, an average of 2.45 per nine innings.
And his position players have taken notice, including Adam Jones who recalled Arrieta’s superb command in one of his poor outings this spring. The center fielder told him he wasn’t concerned with the results but liked what he saw from him on the mound.
“He was attacking the zone with all his pitches,” Jones said. “Most importantly, that’s what you want — somebody out there throwing strikes and using his defense. You’re going to get hit; that’s the name of the game. Somebody’s going to hit you — they’re going to hit you. If you go out there throwing strikes and not walking people and you let us play for you, that’s all we ask as position players.”
That new approach will enable the 6-foot-4 pitcher to get deeper into games and give his team a better chance to win after he posted a 10-8 record and a 5.05 ERA in 18 starts last season.
With the elbow surgery and discomfort behind him, the next phase of Arrieta’s career begins on Friday as he tries to take control of the top of the rotation.
And show everyone he’s an Opening Day pitcher, not the guy pitching on Opening Day.
Of all the Orioles’ young pitchers, Arrieta appears the most ready when it comes to demeanor and mental toughness, but going out and doing it is a different story.
“There’s really no nervousness,” Arrieta said. “I’m just ready for the moment.”