For most of the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, Bronson Arroyo was one of Major League Baseball’s most reliable starting pitchers. After getting his first full-time starting job with the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and tossing 178.2 innings that year, Arroyo logged 200 or more innings every year through 2013, with the exception of 2009, when he pitched 199 innings for the Reds. In that time span (2004-2013), no right-hander in baseball pitched more innings than Arroyo, and Arroyo was one of just four pitchers (the other three all being lefties) to throw over 2,000 innings in that time frame. In those years (two with Boston, eight with Cincinnati), Arroyo complied a win-loss record of 129-113, struck out 1,354 batters, and compiled an ERA of 4.10, good for an ERA+ of 105. Opponents batted just .262 off of the righty, and hit for just a 98 OPS+.
To someone who doesn’t follow baseball, but might be familiar enough with the sport to know what a “pitcher” is, Arroyo might sound like a physically imposing man, with enough size and strength to endure those long innings on the mound. The same person might also assume Arroyo possesses exceptional abilities as a pitcher, in order to stay relevant and successful for so many years.
While not derived from unsound logic, neither of these assumptions would be at all true. Listed at six-foot-three, 185 pounds, Arroyo has the look of someone who may be knocked over by a strong gust of wind, or disappear from view should they turn themselves sideways towards you. That’s not to say Bronson isn’t a strong man – he was allegedly squatting 250 pounds at age seven – but you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him.
While some people with Arroyo’s body type – Chris Sale comes to mind – have electrifying stuff and dominate hitters, Arroyo wasn’t that type of player. His fastball was underwhelming, never reaching much higher than 90 miles per hour and his offspeed pitches weren’t all that impressive, either.
So if he wasn’t big, and his pitches weren’t that great, how did the laid-back kid from Key West, Florida manage to hang around as a big-league starter for so long? In a piece written by Deadspin’s Tom Ley last October, Arroyo credits something a little more “abstract” as a key to his success as a pitcher: feel. “Feel” is hard to define, but Arroyo sums it up as being able to change speeds, change mechanics, and throw anything for a strike.
In the 8 years since PitchF/X was implemented in major-league parks, Arroyo threw eight different types of pitches: four-seam fastball, curveball, sinker, slider, changeup, cutter, splitter, and two-seam fastball. Five of them (four-seam/curve/sinker/slider/change) were thrown over 3,500 times each, but none more than 5,000 times. As a percentage of his total pitches, Arroyo threw each of these five pitches more than 16 percent of the time, and for more than 61 percent strikes. Take a look:
If there’s a way to represent “feel” statistically, this may be it. While some pitchers struggle to command one pitch, or utilize more than two offspeed pitches, Arroyo made up for his lack of outstanding “stuff” by commanding five pitches and using them all, often. Physically, Arroyo got by on fluid mechanics, a low-stress delivery. and probably by throwing far fewer fastball than the average pitcher (and having lower velocity doesn’t hurt).
After such a stretch of unwavering reliability, Arroyo’s career came to an abrupt halt in 2014. On May 13 of that season, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arroyo’s ulnar collateral ligament – or UCL, as it’s better known – ruptured. That didn’t stop Arroyo from picking up seven strikeouts and allowing just one run that day, earning a 3-1 complete-game victory over Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals. In fact, Arroyo went on to make six more starts after that, not surprisingly pitching six or more innings in five of those games. However, his velocity was dropping and he began experiencing some discomfort in his elbow, so he went to the team doctors for an MRI following his start against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 15. It was then that he discovered he had all but destroyed his UCL, and would immediately require Tommy John Surgery.
Arroyo missed the rest of the 2014 season, and began 2015 rehabbing with the Diamondbacks, hoping to make his way back to the majors before season’s end. In June, however, he was shipped across the country to the Atlanta Braves, and then in July he was again traded to the Dodgers. Unfortunately, his rehab was slower than expected, and he missed the entire 2015 season. On November 7, 2015, the Dodgers declined Arroyo’s $13.5 million option for 2016, instead paying him $4.5 million in a buyout, making him a free agent.
Still convinced of his abilities as a major-league pitcher, Arroyo was determined to make a comeback, and continued rehabbing his injured elbow throughout the winter. On January 26, 2016, Arroyo got his chance, and inked a minor-league contract with the Washington Nationals with and invite to major-league spring training. In his first outing of the spring, Arroyo struggled, pitching two innings of relief while allowing two runs (both earned) off of four hits, two walks, and no strikeouts. However, on March 10, he started against Houston, throwing three perfect innings and picking up a trio of strikeouts along the way. His fastball was slower than most pitchers’ sliders are nowadays, working around 82-83 mph, but he displayed the command and “feel” that he always had, inducing weak-hits balls and keeping hitters off balance.
Arroyo was scheduled to make his next start on March 16 against the Miami Marlins, but was scratched before the game due to shoulder soreness. After undergoing multiple test and an MRI, Peter Gammons reported that Arroyo had suffered an 80% tear in his right labrum. Today, however, Arroyo came back with official word that he had suffered a significant tear in his rotator cuff. With his best days behind him and at least another year-plus of rehab in front of him, the 39-year-old’s career looks to be all but over.
While nobody would likely choose to be forced from the game they love because of injury, especially after missing a year and a half from a different injury, Arroyo will not be short on things to do after he retires. His love of music will surely become on of his focuses in retirement, as he’s managed to keep his appetite for rock-and-roll alive throughout his career, even releasing his first cover album “Covering the Bases” back in 2005. A notorious people person, Arroyo will also look to take more time to strengthen his relationships with his friends and family. In Ley’s piece on Arroyo from last year, he said that “the first thing he’s going to do when he retires is call up each one of his friends and ask them what is on their bucket list, because he’s going to make sure each item gets checked off.”
Surely, the end of a career as fantastic and unlikely as Bronson Arroyo’s will be met with much sadness and disappointment from the baseball community, inside and outside the game. However, with 145 major-league wins and over $95 million in career earnings under his belt, Arroyo be able to ride off into the sunset with a great sense of pride about his accomplishments. Whatever he plans to do next will surely be met with the enthusiasm, devotion, and “feel” he brought with him to the mound every fifth day for all those years in the majors.