Bronson Arroyo: Hoping it sticks to the wall, does not go over

A serial look at the starting pitching. Part II: Bronson Arroyo

Bronson Arroyo was not good last year -- and such large portions. He managed to lead the Reds in innings pitched, despite serving as the team's worst regular starter. With the truth out of the way, we can take a clear-eyed look at whether the Reds' longest-tenured pitcher can turn the clock all the way back to 2010.

For a soft-tosser like Arroyo who gets by on his wits, it might be easier to imagine a journey back to reliable innings-eater than a "stuff" pitcher who has lost his zip. In fact, this might be Arroyo's strongest beacon of hope. However, there were a few things about his performance that might lead on to believe that 2011 was not just a 199 inning accident of history.

Last year, Bronson was historically bad from a flyball standpoint. Though "historically bad" might suggest his fortunes can only turn for the better, he pitched beyond bad luck and into a possible permanent decline. Only four pitchers since 1901 have qualified for the ERA title and had a HR/9 rate above 2.0 Two of them pitched in the strike-shortened '94 season, so you might go ahead and say Arroyo stands alone with the late, great Jose Lima.

Arroyo's long ball tendencies may have been mostly the result of hittability, rather than just bad luck or park effects. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) - at .278 - was right in line with his career average, suggesting he made an expected natural regression after 2 seasons of "cheating" the numbers and outperforming his fielding-independent pitching. Defense efficiency was similar for Arroyo as it was for teammate Mike Leake, but Arroyo's batted balls were being hit much harder and farther. Looking at the numbers, you have the impression that Bronson's batted-ball profile was settling closer to its "natural" home.

With his decline in velocity last season came his lowest K% since 2005. He walked batters at a lower rate than he ever has - GOOD - but opposing batters were putting the ball in play more often and hitting it harder when they did (BAD). His line drive and fly ball rates were higher than they've been in years, while his slugging percentage against jumped from .389 in 2010 to .527 in 2011.

Reasons for hope

Bronson's 2011 xFIP (4.58) was tolerable for a 4/5 starter, suggesting - through tender mercy - he can't possibly give up HRs at that rate again. With restored velocity and a year of distance from mononucleosis, I can't possibly see him getting knocked around like that this year. Just getting back to his career-average home run rate could shave off a half-run from his ERA and make him an acceptable 5th starter.

Arroyo's control was also very good last season. If he can stop living in the heart of the plate as much, he could be much less hittable. He never allowed more than 10 hits per nine IP in a full season until 2011. He had two good seasons ('09-'10) with similar strike out rates to last season, so his improved control could actually give him some room for error if he cuts down on the meatballs.

With as hard as he trains, as dedicated as he is to the craft and as many barely-legal supplements he may be taking, Arroyo is a young 35. Junkballers can pitch well into their 40s and be serviceable at the back of a rotation. The Reds should expect Arroyo to be a back-of-rotation starter, but I would feel better about his usage and that of the rotation depth around him if Aroldis Chapman hadn't just been crammed back into the bullpen.

It's easy to say Bronson's defensive-independent pitching finally caught up with him last season. But even if his BABIP settled back around .270-.280, he can have a successful year by staying in the ballpark. He'll have a great defense behind him, so he might even get an additional boost - especially if puts the ball on the ground the way he did '09-'10.

What he throws

Look at this weird thing:

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"Seeing what sticks" via pitchfx.texasleaguers.com (2011, mixed media GIF)

Though pitch identification is at a crazy degree of difficulty for Arroyo, this graphic gives the sense of how big Arroyo's pallet is. He throws pretty much every pitch I've ever heard of, in arm slots ranging from sidearm to nearly over-the-top.

His repertoire looked like this in 2010 (table lifted from JinAZ):

Pitch Use% Strike% GB% Whiff% League-wide Whiff%
Four Seamer 18% 63% 30% 6% 6%
Sinker 23% 63% 57% 5% 5%
Cutter 4% 60% 58% 9% 8%
Slider 3% 71% 36% 8% 14%
Change-Up 25% 69% 49% 7% 13%
Splitter 3% 68% 9% 3% 16%
Curve 25% 68% 28% 10% 12%

He changed that mix in 2011 significantly, throwing less change-ups and relying more on his slider (as he had in years past):

Pitch Use% Strike% GB% Whiff% League-wide Whiff%
Four Seamer 30% 62.7% 31.4% 4.6% "
Slider 11% 68.8% 32.7% 13.5%
Sinker 22% 60.8% 59.4% 3.6%
Curve 13% 76.5% 24.7% 7.6%
Splitter
9% 69.2% 3.8% 6.9%
Change-Up
14% 67.6% 49.5% 8.9%
Cutter
2% 69.3% 33.6% 6.7%

* What makes this confusing is that a good chunk of these change-ups might actually be mis-ID'd split-finger fastballs, both in 2010 and in 2011. Meanwhile, his sinkers may be splitters too. Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers don't agree on the exact percentages. But this gives us the gist.

Bronson gave up his highest rate of home runs off the fastball and the dip in velocity there has been well-documented, so I wanted to take a look at his curveball, which was another favorite for home-run hitters and pitch that is easier to identify than others.

Hitters were whiffing less and hitting this pitch harder in 2011. The graphs say it had similar break as it did in 2010. In fact, it may have had more break, but it traveled through the strikezone more often. This might have to do with the fact that Arroyo dropped down more often to throw it. It's possible Arroyo was tipping this pitch, while making costlier mistake pitches -- and doing the same with others.

In Spring Training 2012, Arroyo has been toying with a one-seam sinker. We'll see how that pans out.

Comparables

I mentioned Lima Time above. While he's a cautionary tale, he still put together a pretty good season for the Dodgers a whole 4 years after his 2000 dis-Astro. Bronson is a better pitcher than Lima and was better comparing their respective worst seasons.

There are two former Reds among Arroyo's three PECOTA comparables: Kenshin Kawakami, Brett Tomko, Cory Lidle. Not too encouraging.

Considering pitch types and velocities, the algorithm at Brooks Baseball spits out the following names. Submitted without comment:

Carlos Zambrano
Jeff Karstens
Shaun Marcum
Casey Coleman
Mike Leake

Now, here's a list of pitchers age 33-37 since 1950 who pitched at least 175 innings, with a K-rate less than 6.0, BB rate less than 2.7 and HR/9 rate >1.3.

Arroyo's 2011 pulls up the rear, primarily because his HR rate was so atrocious. What this list suggests, if anything, is that you can be around league average as mid-30s aging finesse-pitcher with good control. But no way can you be giving up 2 HRs every nine innings.

Rk Player BB/9 HR/9 SO/9 IP Year Age Tm ERA+ OPS+
1 Fergie Jenkins 1.68 1.40 4.90 193.0 1977 34 BOS 124 86
2 Rick Reed 1.24 1.53 5.79 188.0 2002 37 MIN 118 94
3 Rick Reed 1.66 1.37 5.92 184.0 2000 35 NYM 109 93
4 Scott Sanderson 1.66 1.32 4.99 184.0 1993 36 TOT 104 102
5 Paul Byrd 1.70 1.55 4.10 180.0 2008 37 TOT 95 109
6 Paul Byrd 1.91 1.31 4.42 179.0 2006 35 CLE 92 112
7 Bill Gullickson 2.03 1.42 2.60 221.2 1992 33 DET 91 107
8 Rodrigo Lopez 2.52 1.67 5.22 200.0 2010 34 ARI 85 122
9 Mike Caldwell 2.01 1.38 2.29 228.1 1983 34 MIL 83 126
10 Bronson Arroyo 2.04 2.08 4.88 199.0 2011 34 CIN 77 134
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/3/2012.

Prediction

Arroyo is perfectly capable to being league-average 5th starter or better. Whether the Reds use the depth around him to treat him like one, without being hell-bent on getting to 200 IP, is another thing.


Projection system ERA IP
Best-case Bill James
4.00 207.0
Worst-case PECOTA 4.98 182.6
Made-up Me 4.82 185 IP
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