Why Are Teams so Afraid of Free-Agent Starter Bronson Arroyo?

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Why Are Teams so Afraid of Free-Agent Starter Bronson Arroyo?
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Anybody interested in a guy who has logged at least 199 innings in nine straight seasons and has posted ERAs under 4.00 in four of the past five?

Knowing that the guy those numbers belong to is still floating on the free-agent waters, apparently not. And figuring out why that's the case is harder than it should be.

The guy we're talking about is Bronson Arroyo, who's spent the past eight years with the Cincinnati Reds. Those are his numbers up there. You'd think they'd have landed him a contract by now. But they haven't, and the veteran right-hander doesn't get it.

Arroyo told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark that he's gotten nibbles from a dozen teams, but no actual offers yet. And in the wake of Clayton Kershaw signing a $215 million extension and Masahiro Tanaka signing a $155 million contract, he had this to say:

I get [Clayton] Kershaw. I get why he got all that money. But then you've got guys like Dice-K [Matsuzaka], who came over here and was good for the first couple years but then didn't pan out. And when he doesn't pan out, they all just forget and go on to the next guy who's not proven, and pay him.

Meanwhile, they forget about guys like me, who have done the job for the last eight or 10 years, and treat them like they've never done anything in this game. That's hard, man.

Frustration, thy name is Arroyo. And in his case, one does sympathize. 

Stark says Arroyo's goal has been a three-year deal worth around $30 million, which sounds fair enough for a guy who has been good for 200 innings like clockwork for almost a decade.

True, Arroyo is getting up there in age, as 2014 will be his age-37 season. But considering how Tim Hudson, age-38 in 2014, and Bartolo Colon, age-41 in 2014, both got two-year deals, Arroyo getting a three-year deal fits with what's gone down this winter.

Helping Arroyo's cau...Or, at least, what should be helping his cause is the fact that his injury track record is laughably cleaner than those of Hudson and Colon.

Arroyo has never been on the disabled list, and three of the eight injuries listed on his Baseball Prospectus page were caused by batted balls. Take those out of the equation, and you're left with even more of a portrait of a guy whose body just doesn't break down.

Because Arroyo is still a pitcher, his track record of clean health isn't a guarantee. But when guys like Hudson and Colonwho have 17 DL stints and four surgeries between them—are getting multiyear contracts, a wild guess says it's not health concerns that are scaring teams away from Arroyo.

Another wild guess says that teams probably aren't hung up on Arroyo possibly losing any of his stuff. He's been getting by with subpar velocity his whole career, and it's remarkable how Arroyo's velocity really hasn't become that much more subpar over time.

Arroyo's average fastball velocity in 2004, according to FanGraphs, was 88.6 miles per hour. In 2013, it was 87.2. As far as velocity regressions over the course of a decade go, that's perfectly acceptable.

What's more is that the minor velocity loss Arroyo has experienced isn't entirely owed to aging. It's partially owed to his increased reliance on his sinker, illustrated here with data from Brooks Baseball:

Bronson Arroyo's Fastball Distribution
Year Four-Seam % Sinker %
2008 26.0 20.6
2009 20.5 25.5
2010 23.2 18.5
2011 30.5 21.6
2012 7.2 31.3
2013 4.7 38.9

Brooks Baseball

That's a picture of a man embracing a fastball that's less likely to get elevated, and it has worked. Arroyo has given up far fewer fly balls with his sinker than he used to with his four-seamer.

That Arroyo has put more trust in his sinker and has been able to use it effectively is yet another encouraging thing. His arsenal has always been about smoke and mirrors. Now that his four-seamer has been all but abandoned in favor of his sinker, he doesn't throw anything that doesn't have movement. His arsenal has become even more smokey-and-mirrors-y.

So if that's not an issue...and if his health isn't an issue...then the lack of offers must be related to his performances, right?

That's the best guess. And to this end, I wonder if prospective buyers are being a bit too picky.

Arroyo has one big selling point, and that's his command. After climbing to 7.8 percent in 2008, his walk rates have dropped every year since. Among qualified starters, his 4.2 BB% over the past two years ranks third behind only Cliff Lee and Colon.

But as much as teams must like the sound of that, they might be too hung up on Arroyo's major weaknesses: home runs and strikeouts.

There's no ignoring Arroyo's gopheritis. He's given up at least 25 home runs every year since 2006, consistently posting HR/FB rates over 10 percent along the way.

As for the strikeouts, Arroyo's basically the antithesis to what's been happening in recent years. The past five seasons have been the only seasons in MLB history in which the league's strikeout rate has been over 18 percent, yet Arroyo's K% hasn't climbed any higher than 15.5.

Here's some jaw-dropping baseball analysis for you: Strikeouts are good, and home runs are bad. That Arroyo has been getting few of the former and has always given up a lot of the latter is, well, bad.

This is our excuse to turn to FIP. That's "Fielding Independent Pitching," and what it does is measure what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on the thing he can control: walks, home runs, strikeouts and hit-by-pitches. Generally, if a guy's ERA is notably better or worse than his FIP, something's fishy.

So maybe it's this that general managers are frightened of:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

From 2000 right up until 2008, there wasn't a whole lot of disagreement between Arroyo's ERAs and his FIPs. Essentially, he was getting the ERAs he deserved.

Things have been different since 2009. Arroyo's ERAs have been consistently lower than his FIPs. Even in that awful 2011 year when his ERA was 5.07, his FIP said he deserved something closer to 6.00.

Some (such as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs) have noted that today's front offices are less trusty of ERA than they used to be. It's possible this is the single biggest reality holding up Arroyo's market, as teams might not be able to trust Arroyo's recent collection of sub-4.00 ERAs.

I'm not going to say this isn't a legit gripe. It is. If I'm a GM, the thought does cross my mind that signing Arroyo might mean falling into an ERA trap, and that said trap could cancel out whatever value I get from his innings.

There is, however, one thing to say in Arroyo's defense: He's no ordinary FIP-breaker.

Since FIP isn't park-adjusted, it's not uncommon for guys who pitch at good pitchers' ballparks to consistently finish with ERAs under their FIPs. Matt Cain, for example, was the poster child for that for a while.

But this, obviously, is not a trend that applies to Arroyo. He's spent the past eight years pitching at Great American Ballpark, one of the league's most notorious launching pads. As such, you wonder whether Arroyo's recent trend of outperforming his FIPs is owed to domination on the road away from GABP.

It's not. Actually, it's uncanny how much his home and road numbers over the past five seasons look like each other. Observe:

Bronson Arroyo's 2009-2013 Home/Road Splits
Split K% BB% BABIP GB% HR/FB FIP xFIP ERA
Home 14.3 5.8 0.269 43.0 13.1 4.78 4.31 4.04
Away 13.9 5.3 0.264 42.1 12.1 4.68 4.35 4.07

FanGraphs

There are some small differences here and there, but on the whole, Arroyo was basically the same pitcher no matter where he was pitching. Given that this is a five-year sample size, it's hard to call that good luck. And given the nature of the home ballpark he was pitching at, that his home and road numbers look so identical is an accomplishment.

This is not to discount FIP. It's a stat that should be consulted. But if I'm a general manager, I'm intrigued by how Arroyo has consistently bested his FIPs despite pitching in an environment that should have made that impossible. That indicates that, hey, maybe he did deserve those ERAs.

Would you give Bronson Arroyo a three-year, $30 million deal?

Submit Vote vote to see results

So at the end, here's us weighing the good and bad of Bronson Arroyo.

The good: He's never been hurt, he never walks anybody, he has an impressive track record as an innings-eater despite doing it all with smoke and mirrors, and he has the repertoire to keep doing so.

The bad: His inability to strike hitters out and his inability to keep the ball in the yard don't help his FIPs, and his FIPs say he's really not that good.

But then the counterpoint for the bad: Maybe FIP isn't the best stat for Arroyo.

Arroyo's not an ace. If he was, there'd be more good, less bad and maybe more counterpoints for the bad. What's up there is more of a profile of a good, solid pitcher. One who, going off this winter's market prices, is worth around $10 million per year in a shorter deal.

Since that's apparently more or less what Arroyo is hoping for, I'm with him in not knowing what the holdup is all about.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Load More Stories

Follow B/R on Facebook

Out of Bounds

MLB

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.