Should the Reds Move Bronson Arroyo to the Bullpen?

 

The questions haven’t gone away. And Bronson Arroyo is running out of answers.

When it became clear this spring that Arroyo had a real shot at making the Cincinnati Reds roster, no one was happier than me. Arroyo has had a great career in the Queen City—he’s almost certainly a Reds Hall of Famer—and has always been entertaining. Varying arm angles, changing speeds, that ridiculous leg kick, the hair—Arroyo wasn’t just a good pitcher during his prime. He was also fun.

Fun. That’s why we watch baseball, right? Because it’s a diversion, because it’s enjoyable.

And that’s why I couldn’t work up any opposition to the possibility that Arroyo might actually join the Reds regular season rotation back in April. He’s a fun guy to have around.

Sure, there were always arguments against handing significant big league innings on a rebuilding club to a 40-year-old who hadn’t pitched since 2014, especially with all these young hurlers waiting in the wings. All of those arguments were and are completely legitimate.

But in the face of reason, as I noted just before Opening Day, I was still excited and hopeful:

Fans at Riverfront Stadium had fun in 1984 when Pete Rose debuted as player/manager. It was fun when Eric Davis returned to the Reds late in his career. It was fun when Chris Sabo came back to Cincinnati.

And it’ll be fun to have Bronson Arroyo back in a wishbone-C cap, even if it’s only for a few weeks, while some guys get healthy (or get past their service-time dates). It’ll be fun to see if he can get out big league hitters, outsmart them with the slop he tosses up to the plate. It’ll be fun to see him inject a little personality into a team that has been difficult to watch for the last few years. It just might be fun to see him mentor some of the (young pitchers).

Welcome back, Bronson. Have fun. I know I will.

Okay, I concede: This hasn’t been fun. Through nine starts, Arroyo has a 3-4 record with a not-very-impressive 6.75 ERA. He’s given up at least four runs in more than half of his starts, and has not pitched into the seventh inning a single time. The advanced statistics aren’t any kinder: Arroyo’s FIP is 6.95 and he’s been worth -0.6 WAR thus far in 2017.

Are we at the end of the road?

Well, maybe. For his part, Arroyo still believes that he can pitch. As he told the Boston Globe, in his inimitable style: “I feel like I can throw 200 innings,” he says. “To go out there, completely handicapped, got the worst [expletive] in the game and try to win 15 games and throw 200 innings at age 40, 41, 42. Dude, there ain’t nothing better, bro.”

He’s still a long way from that 200-inning mark, a total he reached in eight of his nine previous seasons in Cincinnati (the outlier, 2011, Arroyo only pitched 199 innings). If Arroyo can’t figure things out, his career will be over before the comeback ever gets its legs.

Perhaps, I’m overly optimistic on this point—okay, I’m definitely overly optimistic—but it seems to me that there is a chance Arroyo can salvage what is left of his career. One option: send him to the bullpen.

We’re still talking about a tiny sample—46.2 innings pitched—but Arroyo’s splits show something interesting (if not surprising). The first time through the lineup, opposing hitters are hitting a collective .229/.308/.414. The second time through, those numbers rise to .312/.333/.558. That’s a stark difference, and it makes one think that he might be well suited to relief appearances at this point in his career.

As a soft-tosser, Arroyo doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option to be a good reliever. But it’s not like the Reds would need him to pitch in high-leverage situations. With the current state of the rotation, there are plenty of spots for guys that can pitch two or three innings.

So that’s one option. Over at Fangraphs, Eno Sarris suggested another way that Arroyo could salvage his career, and even continue to pitch in the rotation. Arroyo’s breaking pitches are still great, and he can still throw them for strikes. It’s his fastball—which barely cracks 80 mph anymore—that’s the problem. What if Arroyo threw breaking balls 80-percent of the time?

It’s a drastic concept, and no one knows how it would turn out. But if anyone has ever been a good candidate to try something so outside-the-box, it’s Arroyo.

Arroyo told the Enquirer that he’s intrigued by the idea, but that he isn’t entirely convinced it’s a workable strategy against big league hitters. But regardless of whether he ever goes all-in, it’s clear that he’s trending in that direction. Only 39.9 percent of his pitches this season have been fastballs; in Arroyo’s entire career, he’s thrown fastballs 44.6 percent of the time. He’s throwing his slider 28.1 percent of the time, by far the highest rate of his career. The numbers are similar for his curveball.

Okay, it’s not a likely scenario that Arroyo will do something so radical. What I fear is that Arroyo will keep doing what he’s doing, and the results will not improve. When some of Cincinnati’s other starters—Brandon Finnegan, Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey—begin to return from injury, as soon as next month, Arroyo will likely be put out to pasture. His outstanding career will sputter to an ignominious close. That isn’t the way any of Arroyo’s fans—myself included—want to see him go out.

Or maybe he’ll regain his form, as he believes he can. Perhaps Arroyo will return to being the steady innings-eater that we all came to know and love over the last decade-plus.

That’d be fun, eh?

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Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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