Is There Any Hope for Jair Jurrjens to Regain All-Star Form with the Orioles?

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Is There Any Hope for Jair Jurrjens to Regain All-Star Form with the Orioles?
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Baltimore Orioles are taking a chance on 26-year-old right-hander Jair Jurrjens, and there's a fair chance that it will pay off in a big way for them.

But first Jurrjens has to be fixed. And for that, the Orioles are going to require a big toolbox. 

As Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported, the Orioles have agreed to pay Jurrjens a $1.5 million base salary. His deal also includes incentives that could make the contract worth $4 million. If he were to rediscover the All-Star form he showed in 2011, he'd have little trouble earning that extra cash.

But there are darn good reasons for why it feels like Jurrjens' All-Star selection in 2011 feels like it was eons ago. He's not the same pitcher as he was back then in more ways than one.

Jurrjens posted a 6.89 ERA and a 1.86 WHIP in 11 appearances (10 starts) for the Atlanta Braves in 2012. The main thing holding him down was a decrease in velocity, as his fastball came in at an average of less than 89 miles per hour. It was coming in at an average of over 89 miles per hour in 2011 and at over 91 miles per hour back in 2010 (see FanGraphs).

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Jurrjens gave up eight home runs in only 48.1 innings in 2012.

It's possible to get by with an 88-89 mile-per-hour fastball, but Jurrjens certainly wasn't. Per PITCHf/x, opposing batters hit a staggering .383 off Jurrjens' fastball in 2012 after hitting .218 off of it in 2011.

Pretty much everything else Jurrjens threw in 2012 got hit as well, including his second-favorite pitch: the changeup. Opposing hitters hit it at a .312 clip after hitting it at a .244 clip in 2011.

Jurrjens' velocity problems played a role in the diminished effectiveness of his changeup, as there was only about six mile-per-hour difference between his fastball and his changeup. When he was still throwing hard, the difference between his fastball and changeup was closer to 10 miles per hour.

However, the Orioles shouldn't just be concerned with finding a way to replace Jurrjens' lost velocity and then leaving it at that. His pitching style could also use some tweaks, most notably the way he attacks both left- and right-handed hitters with his fastball.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here are Jurrjens' fastball heat maps from the 2012 season, which show where he most often attacked hitters:

Image credit: FanGraphs

This is from the catcher's perspective, so imagine the hitter on the right side of the box on the lefty heat map and the hitter on the left side of the box for the righty heat map.

You can see that Jurrjens rarely bothered to attack left-handed hitters on the inside part of the plate with his fastball. He stayed away from the inside part of the plate against right-handed hitters as well, living primarily over the middle of the plate and away. 

Jurrjens fooled neither lefties nor righties in 2012. Left-handers compiled a .943 OPS against him. Right-handers managed a .954 OPS. Both slugged over .540 against him.

Whether or not Jurrjens regains his velocity, the Orioles should want him to change the way he approaches hitters. He needs to have lefties and righties looking for his four-seamer on both sides of the plate rather than just one.

Jurrjens can further help himself by dusting off his two-seam fastball. He rarely used it in 2012, meaning hitters knew that anything hard was going to stay straight and end up in certain areas.

On the flip side, Jurrjens went to his two-seamer very often in 2011, and here's where he put it:

Image credit: FanGraphs

You can see that he wasn't afraid to use his two-seamer inside to lefties, an eternally useful trick for right-handed pitchers. Against righties, he was able to put it at the bottom of the zone on both sides of the plate fairly consistently.

That surely played a part in his 42.0 ground-ball percentage in 2011, which tumbled to 38.7 percent in 2012 while his HR/FB rate went from 8.0 to 11.0.

If the Orioles push for Jurrjens to reintroduce his two-seamer while also pushing him to be bolder with his four-seam fastball, they'll have created a pitcher with more dimensions than the one who got routinely shelled in 2012. This alone would help him bounce back.

If Jurrjens finds some of his old velocity again, then the Orioles will also have a pitcher with a solid fastball and, by extension, a usable changeup.

Finding velocity again after it's been lost is no easy chore, to be sure. Baltimore's best hope is that Jurrjens' velocity was suffering because of health issues that have since cleared up.

This may indeed be the explanation knowing Jurrjens' recent history with nagging injuries. And the bright side for the Orioles, such as it is, is that Jurrjens' arm hasn't been where the injuries have been located. His recent problems have all been with his legs, specifically his right leg. 

That, of course, would be Jurrjens' push-off leg. If he was feeling pain or was worried about feeling pain in his right leg, he may have been putting less force into his delivery to home plate, which would be a reasonable explanation for some of his lost velocity.

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It's just as possible that Jurrjens' delivery itself is what's been hurting his legs these past two years. And if so, that's where Baltimore director of pitching development, Rick Peterson, may be able to help Jurrjens the most.

Peterson specializes in biomechanics, and his expertise could help him pinpoint a crucial flaw in Jurrjens' pitching mechanics. By fixing it, he could help prevent further wear and tear on Jurrjens' legs.

Peterson's presence alone should give Orioles fans hope that the club's newest member will end up being a productive player. Peterson knows pitching as well as anyone, and he proved as much for the umpteenth time in 2012 by helping to turn the likes of Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman and even Steve Johnson into effective hurlers.

In short, Jurrjens needs a pretty major repair job, but he's landed with the perfect organization to carry it out.

 

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