Watching Saturday’s game, I got the sense that anyone could hit Bronson Arroyo’s fastball out of Citizen’s Bank Park. I even said as much in my recap of that contest:
“On a good day, Bronson Arroyo’s fastball brushes 85 mph. He can maybe rear back and get it up to 86 or 87 as Fangraphs claims, but I’ve yet to see it happen….He’s had a magnificent career only matched by his personality, but at this point in his baseball life, Bronson Arroyo is nothing more than batting practice.”
What I neglected to mention in my Phillies walkoff-induced malaise was that Arroyo’s breaking stuff actually looked pretty good. Not Clayton Kershaw pulling the string out of his curveball good, but some deception and cunning was demonstrated by the long-haired veteran.
Perhaps there was no better instance of the prowess of Arroyo’s breaking stuff than his strikeout of Cesar Hernandez with a runner on third and one out. Running the count full, Arroyo threw breaker after breaker, trying to catch Hernandez off-balance and either strikeout or make weak contact. Eventually, Hernandez flailed at a sidearm offering and Arroyo escaped the inning without the run coming to plate.
At some point in the at bat, Phillies announcer Gregg Murphy commented: “Arroyo doesn’t seem to care if he walks Hernandez, he’s just trying to get him to get himself out.”
That comment, followed by the strikeout and complemented with the memory of Michael Saunders demolishing a chest-high Arroyo fastball, got me thinking: what if Arroyo ditched the heater altogether?
Fangraph’s Eno Sarris suggested Arroyo could be a good candidate for an 80% breaking ball diet about a week ago, and I think the time has come for the vet to go full South Beach if he plans on staying in the rotation.
This season, Arroyo has offered six types of pitches—fastball, curve, change, slider, cutter, sinker—that can pretty easily be broken into fastball and breaking ball categories. In the fastball category, Arroyo has thrown his heater, cutter, or sinker a total of 329 times for a contact rate of 91.2%. Take out the two fastballs that move even a little bit, and that contact rate rises to 93.5%.
Now for the breaking balls—curve, change, and slider. Bronson has translated 489 breaking offerings into a 77.9% contact rate, just over 13% lower than his harder pitches, and he’s done that while getting batters to swing through his breaking stuff 10.8% of the time. So what percent of the time do batters swing through his fastballs? 4.3%.
That’s a lot of numbers without much context, but a 13% and 6.5% difference on contact and swing and miss respectively does speak volumes. For added context though, league-average contact rate on all pitches is around 80% and average swing and miss rate is around 9.5%. So, if Bronson Arroyo threw only breaking balls, he would in fact be an above average pitcher.
But no pitcher has ever thrown just breaking balls, and most pitchers are taught from a young age to start fastball and work from there. That philosophy, while meant to establish a pitcher’s confidence and then work to get the hitter off balance, often works in the batter’s favor. In his piece, Sarris quotes Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton who says:
“Starting in 2015, around the time of the current power spike, hitters seemed to be sitting fastball more. And why not? Even though fastball usage has actually declined among pitchers, it still accounts for more than half of all pitches. As a batter, you know you’re eventually going to get one. So, why not wait for one and swing really hard? You might miss and eventually you might strike out, but if you do, so what?”
Hitters know just as well as pitchers that the dominant strategy is to start fastball and work from there, and with Arroyo, they know eventually they’ll be getting a meatball to drive. Really, the only upside of Arroyo’s fastball is that he might get hitters to overthink it and swing out of their shoes, but counting on that is like inverted Russian roulette.
If Arroyo started working dominantly breaking ball—not Sarris’ 80% but perhaps 90% or even higher—would there be a tradeoff? Control is one misgiving that comes to mind. Arm health another.
On the first, Arroyo actually wouldn’t be sacrificing control to pitch breaking first, but gaining it. With his three breaking pitches, Arroyo records a strike 69.1% of the time. With his fastballs, that number drops 60.8%. Sure, there’s an argument that if batters are expecting a breaking ball they’ll be less likely to swing, but Arroyo also hits the zone more with his curve and slider than any other pitch. In fact, if it weren’t for his fastball finding the zone about 3% more than his changeup, all of Bronson’s breaking pitches would be more reliable than his speed stuff.
As for Bronson’s arm health, this may be an asinine conclusion to draw, but does it matter? Arroyo is at the end of a long career, trying to hang on to a job for as long as he can. If he doesn’t find a way to become a productive big league pitcher again, it won’t matter what condition his arm is in because he’ll have been forced into retirement.
The worst that can happen is Bronson blows out his arm again and retires. The decision to fix it or live with it is then a matter of personal convenience. If I were choosing between hanging on to a big league job or having the possibility of being inconvenienced by an arm injury, I would choose the former. But then again, I’ve been living happily with a torn labrum for three years, so I may be biased.
Lastly comes the critique of why should we focus on Bronson? None of the other Reds pitchers are particularly lighting it up, why am I singling out Arroyo for such a drastic switch? Well, Bronson’s been worth -1.21 WPA this season, in other words costing the team a loss and some change that an average player would pick up. The next worst starter in terms of WPA? Amir Garrett at -0.51 in a comparable amount of innings. Arroyo hasn’t just been bad so far, he’s been catastrophic.
Bronson Arroyo already throws breaking balls nearly 60% of the time, why shouldn’t he crank that up to 80%, 85%, 90%? Add in his ever-changing arm angles and you have a crafty veteran making the most of what he’s got left.
The tradeoff between fastballs and breaking pitches has always been timing for movement. On a fastball, a hitter has less time to react but pretty well knows where the ball will end up. With a breaking pitch, you give the hitter more time to adjust but the ball is adjusting its position all the same.
Bronson Arroyo has already taken the short end of stick on his fastball—hitters have just as much time to adjust to it as most starters’ curves but the bottom stays intact on Bronson’s heater. What’s best for Bronson, and best for the Reds, is to ditch the fastball and drop the hook, again and again and again.