JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Bronson Arroyo

USA TODAY Sports Copyright © 2005 Jerry Lai

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Bronson Arroyo
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR Adj. S-JAWS W-L SO ERA ERA+
Bronson Arroyo 23.4 22.8 23.1 148-137 1,571 4.28 101
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

With his wiry frame, Rockette-like leg kick, and flowing blond locks — once upon a time, braided into cornrowsBronson Arroyo certainly cut a memorable figure on the mound. The tall right-hander (sources ranged between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5) made just one All-Star team while spending parts of 16 seasons in the majors from 2000–17, but he established himself as one of the game’s most durable workhorses while pitching for several contenders, first in Boston, where he was part of the drought-ending 2004 champions (and the last player active from that team), and then in Cincinnati.

Arroyo didn’t have dominant stuff. In fact, based on data going back to 2002 from Baseball Info Solutions, his average fastball velocity never cracked 90 mph, but the combination of his breaking and offspeed pitches and the deception produced by his delivery and variable release points helped him produce plenty of soft contact. He was among the game’s best at generating pop ups and suppressing batting average on balls in play.

A willingness to improvise helped. “Maybe I’ve never thrown a fricking sidearm changeup, but you know what, I can’t get this m———– out, so I’m going to throw him a sidearm changeup and get him out,” Arroyo told Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter in 2013. “To be honest with you, there ain’t many people who have ever played this game who are going to keep up with me mentally, picking hitters apart with the s— that I have.”

And Arroyo was an absolute workhorse. From 2004-14, he made 369 consecutive starts, recording at least 32 starts and 199 innings each season while avoiding the disabled list in the middle nine of those years. From 2004-13, only CC Sabathia exceeded Arroyo’s 199 quality starts. A double whammy of arm injuries ended that run, and surgeries to repair his torn ulnar collateral ligament and labrum knocked him out of the majors for nearly three full years, but he made a comeback that was impressive in its doggedness if not its results.

Bronson Anthony Arroyo was born on February 24, 1977 in Key West, Florida, to parents Gus and Julie Arroyo. Gus, a Cuban emigré, worked as a roofer and competed as a powerlifter, bench-pressing as much as 440 pounds. Though lacking a baseball background, and initially resistant to his five-year-old son’s desire to play T-ball, he signed up to coach as soon as Bronson took to the sport. Gus felt he could best help his son succeed through strength training, and had him carbo-loading and lifting nearly every day with a focus on strengthening his legs and back. At eight years old, Bronson could squat 250 pounds; he credited the strength and durability he showed during his career to the regimen he developed with his father.

The family moved to Brooksville as Arroyo grew up. At age 13, he pitched and played shortstop on a Pony League team coached by his father, with future major leaguer A.J. Pierzynski serving as his catcher. At Hernando High School, Arroyo earned all-state honors in baseball and starred in basketball as well; tendinitis in his elbow hampered him during his senior year but he hit .380 as a shortstop. Turning down offers from Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern, he signed a letter of intent to pitch for the University of South Florida, but when the Pirates chose him in the third round of the 1995 draft, he signed for a $125,000 bonus.

The 18-year-old Arroyo began his professional career with the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 1995, and climbed the ladder methodically, one level per year. He had a big season at High-A Lynchburg in 1997 (3.31 ERA, 6.8 K/9 in 160.1 innings) but was rocked for a 5.46 ERA at Double-A Carolina the next year while missing time due to multiple injuries. It was in Double-A that the Pirates tried to get Arroyo to ditch his leg kick, which he had learned while trying to imitate Dwight Gooden, though where Gooden lifted his knee high, Arroyo kept his leg stiff, “as if it is the minute hand on a watch pointed at 10 o’clock.” The change didn’t take.

“I really didn’t realize it was such a different leg kick than anyone else’s until I started seeing it on film in the rookie league,” Arroyo said in 2010. “Like in high school, I knew I had a decent high leg kick, but in my mind my foot is not out there. In my mind, my leg is in the same place everyone else’s is.” He did forgo the kick while pitching from the stretch. (For more on Arroyo’s leg kick, including a visual comparison with Gooden, see Eno Sarris’ 2017 piece.)

Arroyo spent parts of 1999 and 2000 at Triple-A Nashville, then was called up to the Pirates. He made his major league debut on June 13, 2000, yielding 10 hits and five runs to the Braves while striking out just one batter (Javy Lopez). In 12 starts and eight relief appearances totaling 71.2 innings, he was cuffed for a 6.40 ERA. He split 2001 and ’02 between the rotation, the bullpen, and Nashville as well; through three seasons, he compiled a 5.44 ERA (84 ERA+) and 4.97 FIP in 187 innings at the major league level. Command was a problem, as he walked 4.1 hitters per nine in that span. “Arroyo is basically a right-hander with a marginal left-hander’s repertoire,” wrote Baseball Prospectus in 2003. “He has a good attitude, decent control, and a usable sinker, but he doesn’t have enough of anything to be successful in the rotation.” Even the lowly Pirates were coming to that conclusion; in February, they placed him on waivers.

The Red Sox claimed the now-26-year-old righty, stashing him at Triple-A Pawtucket, where things came together; he posted a 3.43 ERA with 9.3 strikeouts and 1.4 walks per nine in 149.2 innings. On August 11, 2003, he threw the fourth perfect game in International League history, striking out nine and needing only 101 pitches. Two weeks later, he was in the majors, replacing Casey Fossum on the Red Sox roster. He made six relief appearances, five of at least three innings; in 17.1 total innings, he struck out 14 and pitched to a 2.08 ERA. The team saw enough to include him on its postseason roster; idle during the Division Series against the A’s, he made three appearances out of the bullpen in the ALCS against the Yankees, allowing one run (a solo homer by Jorge Posada in Game 6) in 3.1 innings.

The Red Sox lost in seven via Aaron Boone’s home run, but Arroyo had earned a spot in the picture, and the following spring beat out sore-shouldered Byung-Hyun Kim for the fifth starter job behind Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, and Derek Lowe. He rose to the occasion, posting a 4.03 ERA (120 ERA+) and 3.82 FIP in 178.2 innings, good for 2.6 WAR. He led the AL with 20 hit-by-pitches, none more memorable than a July 24 plunking of Alex Rodriguez in the left shoulder. After the slugger jawed at Arroyo on his way down to first base, catcher Jason Varitek interceded, touching off a bench-clearing brawl from which the pitcher emerged unscathed, though he did get roughed up for eight runs in 5.2 innings.

In the 2004 postseason, Arroyo turned in a six-inning, two-run start in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Angels; the bullpen surrendered a 6-2 lead after he departed but the Sox won in 10 innings to complete the sweep. He lasted just two-plus innings in Game 3 of the ALCS against the Yankees; Rodriguez hit an RBI double and solo homer off him, and he was charged with six runs as the Red Sox were pushed to the brink of elimination. He returned to throw a scoreless 10th inning in the epic 14-inning Game 5, then was involved in a bizarre play in the eighth inning of Game 6, after Schilling and his bloody sock departed. With one out and Derek Jeter on first, Rodriguez hit a dribbler towards first base, then intentionally slapped the ball out of the hand of Arroyo, who had fielded it. Amid the confusion, Jeter came around to score, appearing to pull the Yankees within one, but the run was wiped out and Rodriguez called out for interference after the umpires conferred.

The Red Sox won the game, then completed their comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit to advance to the World Series. Arroyo made two relief appearances during the sweep of the Cardinals, most notably surrendering a two-run lead in the sixth inning of Game 1 via back-to-back doubles by Edgar Renteria and Larry Walker, but escaping the jam by striking out Albert Pujols.

Capitalizing on the championship and his own musical inclination and connections, in 2005 Arroyo released an album, Covering the Bases, in which he played songs by Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Goo Goo Dolls, and the Standells, whose “Dirty Water” long ago became a Boston anthem. More importantly from a baseball standpoint, he reached the 200-inning plateau for the first time that year, but his ERA ballooned to 4.51 (101 ERA+) and his strikeout rate plummeted (from 18.6% to 11.4%); still, his season was solid enough to be worth 2.5 WAR.

In January 2006, Arroyo signed a three-year, $11.25 million extension, but just before the end of spring training, the Red Sox traded him to the Reds straight up for Wily Mo Peña, an outfielder of incredible raw power… and the ability to offset that power with his iron glove. In 2005, Peña had homered 19 times in 335 plate appearances while compiling -20 DRS and -1.1 WAR.

Though Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park was no picnic for pitchers, Arroyo broke out. Leading the league with 35 starts and 240.2 innings, he posted a 3.29 ERA (good for fourth in the NL, and a 142 ERA+) and restored his strikeout rate to 18.6%. All told, his 6.8 WAR was good for second in the league, 0.2 behind Cy Young winner Brandon Webb; Arroyo was shut out in the voting, but did make his only All-Star team, and threw a scoreless inning in the game. As for Peña, he had a 0.6 WAR season for Boston, followed by a -0.9 WAR half-season before being traded to Washington.

At the end of his career in 2017, Arroyo told the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman that in 2006, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein “called me and said, ‘Bronson, I just want to tell you you’re having a fantastic year, and I can’t walk down the street without somebody screaming out of the car, ‘Why in the hell did you trade Arroyo?'”

In February 2007, Arroyo signed a two-year-plus-option extension for $25 million covering the ’09 and ’10 seasons. A 40-point jump in BABIP (from .273 to .313) contributed to a 4.23 ERA, nearly a full run higher than the year before. Thus began a four-year stretch during which he was something of a deluxe League Average Innings Muncher; over that span, Arroyo averaged 212 innings with a 4.17 ERA (104 ERA+), 4.62 FIP, and 2.5 WAR.

The Reds, meanwhile, were in a rut, but after nine straight sub-.500 seasons — including the first two (2008 and ’09) of Dusty Baker’s managerial tenure — they won 91 games and the NL Central in 2010. An otherwise typical Arroyo season (3.88 ERA, 104 ERA+, 4.62 FIP, 2.4 WAR) looked flashier thanks to a 17-10 record that got netted him a down-ballot Cy Young mention; he also won a Gold Glove. He wobbled through his Division Series Game 2 start against the Phillies, allowing four hits, three walks, and three runs (only one earned) in 5.1 innings; the Reds lost that game and were swept.

The Reds picked up Arroyo’s $11.5 million option for 2011, and soon afterwards, the two sides restructured his contract, this time a three-year, $35 million deal covering ’11-13 and including $15 million of deferred money. Though he kept his consecutive starts streak intact, the 2011 season was a struggle for Arroyo, who “battled Valley Fever, mononucleosis and a case of the whooping cough that caused him to lose 17 pounds,” according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. His 5.07 ERA was his worst since his Pittsburgh days, even after lowering it by half a run over the final two months. With a shutout in his penultimate start and then an eight-inning, 125-pitch effort in his final one, he fell just one inning short of the 200 mark.

Healthier and better able to avoid the long ball, Arroyo rebounded with a 3.79 ERA in 202 innings in 2012. Along with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey, he was one of four Reds starters to make at least 32 starts and reach 200 innings; no other quartet has completed such a feat since 2006. Even fifth starter Mike Leake made 30 starts with 179 innings, and that quintet accounted for all but one of the team’s starts as the Reds cruised to 97 wins and another NL Central title. Arroyo pitched a gem in his Division Series Game 2 start against the Giants, allowing just one hit and one walk in seven shutout innings while striking out four; the Reds won a 9-0 laugher but lost the series in five games.

After one more carbon-copy season (3.79 ERA, 202 innings, 2.2 WAR) in which he helped the Reds earn a Wild Card berth (they lost), Arroyo became a free agent for the first time. He signed a two-year, $23.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks, and despite a notable dip in his average fastball velocity, from 87.2 mph to 85.4 mph, pitched more or less up to his standard for 14 starts. Unfortunately, elbow tendinitis ended his consecutive start streak — second among active pitchers to Mark Buehrle’s 443 straight at the time — in mid-June, and he soon underwent Tommy John surgery.

While rehabbing, Arroyo was traded twice in June 2015, first to the Braves along with Touki Toussaint in exchange for Phil Gosselin, and then as part of a three-team, 14-player blockbuster to the Dodgers. The complicated deal moved a lot of bad contracts around; Arroyo continued his rehab but never pitched for the Dodgers. A free agent again, he signed with the Nationals, but made just two appearances for their Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2016 before being diagnosed with a torn labrum and undergoing another season-ending surgery.

Still willing to try a comeback at age 40, he signed a minor league deal with the Reds in February 2017 and made the team out of spring training. The Cardinals hit him for six runs in four innings in his first start on April 8, but even getting back on a major league mound was a triumph. He had three starts of six innings and two runs allowed, plus a few others that were passable, but with a fastball averaging just 84 mph, rough outings were the norm. After a three-inning, five-run start against the Dodgers raised his ERA to 7.35, he conceded that ongoing shoulder pain might put his career in “checkmate,” adding, “That could have been the last time I was on the field.”

Indeed, while he went on the injured list, that was the last time Arroyo pitched. In late September, he announced his retirement.

Like 11 of the other first-time candidates on this ballot, Arroyo won’t be heading to Cooperstown, and it’s possible he may not receive a single vote (none of the first 168 ballots in the Tracker have included any of those dozen names). Still, given the direction the game has gone in favoring high velocity, it’s worth appreciating what he accomplished. He’s one of six pitchers with at least 2,000 innings since 2002 whose fastball velocity averaged less than 88 mph, and is tied with fellow one-and-done candidate Jered Weaver at 87.8; current candidates Mark Buehrle (85.6) and R.A. Dickey (84.8, but of course mainly a knuckleballer) are two of the ones below him. Like Weaver and the harder-throwing Matt Cain, Arroyo pops up on that period’s leaderboards of pitchers best at generating infield fly balls (his 12.2% is in a virtual tie with Cain for fourth), suppressing BABIP (.280, sixth) and undercutting his FIP (-0.38, third). As I’ve already run the BABIP leaderboard for Cain and Weaver, here the ERA-FIP differential one:

Largest ERA – FIP Gaps Since 2002
Jered Weaver* 2067.1 .273 13.0% 3.63 4.07 -0.44
Johnny Cueto 2192.2 .284 10.5% 3.44 3.85 -0.40
Bronson Arroyo* 2275.2 .280 12.2% 4.18 4.56 -0.38
R.A. Dickey* 2061.2 .281 11.5% 4.02 4.40 -0.38
Barry Zito 2269.2 .274 12.8% 4.15 4.49 -0.35
Tim Hudson 2553.0 .282 7.7% 3.47 3.78 -0.31
Clayton Kershaw 2581.0 .270 11.8% 2.48 2.76 -0.28
Mark Buehrle* 3010.2 .295 9.7% 3.84 4.11 -0.27
Cole Hamels 2698.0 .287 10.3% 3.43 3.68 -0.26
Matt Cain* 2085.2 .272 12.2% 3.68 3.92 -0.23
Minimum 2,000 innings pitched. * = On 2023 Hall of Fame ballot

Success on the mound comes in all shapes and sizes, and we can thank Arroyo for adding a special kick to that reminder.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Cave Dameron
1 year ago

Thank you Jay, very cool!