Career Profile: Bronson Arroyo
Bronson Arroyo of the Cincinnati Reds has been one of the more consistently solid and durable major league starters for the last seven years. Yet, Arroyo wasn't rated as a top prospect when he was in the minors. How did he develop?
Bronson Arroyo was drafted in the third round in 1995 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, out of high school in Brooksville, Florida. He didn't throw especially hard, but was tall, projectable, and showed a good feel for pitching. He posted a 4.26 ERA with a 48/9 K/BB in 61 innings in the Gulf Coast League, allowing 72 hits. The K/BB was excellent, but the H/IP and K/IP reflected his lack of plus stuff. He would have rated as a Grade C "with potential" at that phase of his career.
Arroyo jumped to full-season ball in 1996 and made 26 starts for Augusta in the Sally League, going 8-6, 3.52 with a 107/36 K/BB in 136 innings, 123 hits. He didn't rank among the top league prospects due to his 86-88 MPH fastball, but he ate innings, threw strikes, and showed a quality curveball, slider, and changeup. Again, his best mark was a solid K/BB ratio. I gave him a Grade C in the 1997 book, writing that he had a long journey ahead of him, but "took a good first step."
Promoted to High-A Lynchburg for '97, Arroyo posted a similar season with a 3.31 ERA in 24 starts and a 121/33 K/BB in 160 innings, 154 hits. His workload increased but his velocity kicked up slightly into the 88-92 range. He continued to draw good marks for his breaking pitches and changeup, and was ranked as the Number 10 prospect in the Carolina League by Baseball America. I liked his improved velocity, gave him a Grade B in the '98 book, and wrote that if he stayed healthy, he could be "inhabiting the Pittsburgh rotation in 1999."
Arroyo moved up to Double-A Carolina in 1998, but his transition to the higher level didn't go well. A minor injury limited him to 22 starts, and while he still threw 127 innings, his ratios deteriorated. His ERA shot up to 5.46, with a 90/51 K/BB and 158 hits allowed. All of his component ratios were weaker, and scouting reports turned somewhat negative, some questioning if his velocity was going to be good enough for the majors. I lowered his rating to Grade C, worried about the ratio slippage though noting he was still plenty young enough to improve.
Repeating Double-A in 1999, Arroyo went 15-4, 3.65 with a 100/58 K/BB in 153 innings, 167 hits allowed. Despite the big improvement in his ERA, his K/IP ratio actually got worse and his walk rate improved only slightly. The biggest difference was fewer hits, even though his velocity actually dropped a bit. 1999 was before BABIP theory really got going as part of prospect analysis.
I was focused on the dropping strikeout rate and reports of reduced velocity, so even though it was a better year, I only raised his grade one notch to a C+ and wrote that I wasn't excited about him, warning people to pay closer attention to his strikeout rate before making an investment. At the same time, there was some ambiguity in my analysis, because I also wrote that he "could surprise though I think he'll need at least a year of Triple-A."
Arroyo split 2000 between Triple-A Nashville (3.65 ERA in 13 starts, 52/25 K/BB in 89 innings, 82 hits) and the Pirates. He got lit up in the majors, with a 6.41 ERA and a 50/36 K/BB in 72 innings, 88 hits. He split 2001 and 2002 between Nashville and Pittsburgh, then was claimed on waivers by the Red Sox in 2003 and spent most of that season in Pawtucket. He threw a perfect game in Triple-A in August, but the general feeling for Arroyo at this point was that he might be a Quadruple-A pitcher, albeit a good one, with a career Triple-A record of 34-18, 3.59 with a 383/101 K/BB in 460 innings.
Arroyo opened 2004 in the Red Sox bullpen but moved into the rotation quickly and made 29 starts, posting a 4.03 ERA with a 142/47 K/BB in 179 innings, 171 hits, 121 ERA+. He was very aggressive about throwing inside and led the league with 20 HBP. His K/IP ratio improved dramatically. His velocity wasn't really different, still 88-92 MPH, but he showed more confidence with his secondary pitches. He threw 205 more innings with a 101 ERA+ in 2005, winning 14 games.
The Red Sox decided it was time to "sell high" and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for Wily Mo Pena before the '06 season. But the Reds got the last laugh: Pena fizzled, while Arroyo has been one of the most reliable inning-eaters in the National League ever since.
Arroyo now has a career record of 106-96 (.525), 4.19 ERA, 107 ERA+, 4.46 FIP, with a 1148/516 K/BB in 1712 innings, 1727 hits. His career WAR is 21.7, with peak seasons being 2004 (4.2) and 2006 (4.2). WAR records gradual slippage since '06: 2.7 in '07, 2.3 in '08, 1.7 in '09 and again in '10. But it is still a lot better than Wily Mo Pena (career WAR 1.3).
You can certainly argue about the wisdom of Arroyo's contract extension, and a look at Arroyo's velocity charts over the last three years shows gradual but steady slippage.
Overall, though, this was a terrific trade for the Reds.
Most Similar Players through age 33: John Burkett, Jarrod Washburn, Erik Hanson, Flint Rhem (solid inning-eater from the 1930s), Ted Lilly, Steve Avery, Chris Bosio, Milt Wilcox, Steve Stone, and Brett Tomko.
So, how did this happen?
By his own admission, Arroyo used amphetamines and androstenedione as early as 1999.
However, the scouting reports pre-1999 weren't significantly different than the ones post-1999; indeed, despite his better performance in his second try in Double-A in '99, some reports indicated that his velocity had actually dropped a bit. There was certainly no monster increase in velocity, and his secondary pitches had always been well-regarded. He's clean now, and I don't think it was PEDs that led to his major league success anyway.
This was a guy who always had decent stuff, threw strikes, and knew how to pitch. He just took him a few years to make the transition between the high minors and the majors, and the switch in organizations from the weak Pirates to the strong Red Sox in '03 came at exactly the right time. Never underestimate the power of the supporting cast to help a pitcher find his footing.