Q&A: Bronson Arroyo, Master Craftsman

Bronson Arroyo has won 115 games in the past nine seasons. He’s also come up big in the postseason. But none of his success has come thanks to overpowering stuff.

The Cincinnati Reds’ right-hander is a craftsman. His fastball rarely reaches 90 mph, and his breaking pitches are more varied than they are exceptional. His strengths are deception and guile. Featuring a high leg kick and multiple arm angles, he delivers a cornucopia of offerings that more than make up for his lack of velocity.

Arroyo talked about his cerebral approach to pitching — and his ability to mix and match with the best of them — last week in Goodyear, Arizona.


David Laurila: How do you get guys out?

Bronson Arroyo: It’s never simple, but that’s just the nature of the game. There’s such a fine line between a pop-up to center field and a home run 40 feet over the wall. It’s all about the precision of the bat on the ball, and because of that, there’s nothing concrete about the game. You can never say, “If I throw this breaking ball at 78 mph, on the outside corner at the knees, it won’t get hit hard. “ It might get hit out of the park.

Pitching is kind of like making educated guesses. Where are the places I can go in the strike zone to beat this guy? Where can I go where he’ll do the least amount of damage? And sometimes that changes. You can have the bases loaded in the bottom of the last inning and not be able to afford to give up one run. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you go to his weak spot, because he ends up hitting a blooper over second base and you still lose. It’s a very tough game, because it never stays the same. There are so many variables.

I’ve been successful over a long period of time by mixing and matching pitches a little differently than most guys. I pitch backwards a lot. I throw a lot of off-speed stuff in fastball counts. I’m also aware of my surroundings. I’m pitching, sometimes — not on a hunch, but on calculations based on a guy’s body language, his eyes, what he did to me last time. He’s watching a videotape of the last time I faced him, and I’m watching the same videotape. I know he’s making adjustments and I have to make them too. Who is going to beat the other to the punch?

It’s this whole mental game for me. I’m not physically dominating. I can’t go out there like Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto and throw 94-95. I’m throwing 87. It’s harder for me to beat people with brute physical ability, and for that reason I have to spin the ball a little different.

DL: You have a reputation of being deceptive, but some hitters find you less deceptive than others.

BA: Some guys have more consistent swings against you, and their body language will tell you that. There’s a difference between beating a guy when he swings and wasn’t ready for that pitch, versus a guy who was looking for that pitch and just didn’t get it.

There are guys who just put up good numbers against you. We have Shin-Soo Choo here now, and I’m so glad he’s on our team. In the last three years, including spring training, he’s probably got 25 at bats against me. Six of them have been home runs, and he has a couple of doubles and triples. It’s a joke how hard he’s hit me. Felipe Lopez used to get two hits a game off me. Some guys just have a knack against you. They have a much easier time beating you and sometimes it doesn’t matter what you throw at them.

Usually, if you’re mixing and matching enough, you can keep guys off balance, but if you start off a game and guys are hitting you hard, that changes. The momentum of the game changes and your ability to deceive guys changes. You start doubting what you’re doing, because your strategy is obviously not working. It could be because the guy on the other end is out-thinking you — he knows what you’re doing — or it could be that he just beat you. Then you’re not sure if you need to make adjustments or not. It becomes, “Do I need to make an adjustment against this guy, or did he just get lucky and hit that ball?” There’s this whole mind thing going on.

DL: What is your repertoire right now?

BA: I really don’t throw that many pitches, but I throw a lot of variations of my pitches. I throw a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a sinker, a curveball and a changeup. I cut the ball once in a blue moon.

[Pitch/FX] is reading a lot of different things, but what’s happening is that I’m taking my breaking ball and changing angles on it. I’m changing velocities on it. A lot of times, if I bring it more sweepy, they’re going to calculate it as a slider. If I throw it a little differently, they’re going to calculate it as a curveball. It’s the same pitch, I’m just changing arm angles.

I also might throw a four-seam fastball to start the game, at 80 mph. They might chalk that up as a changeup. There’s a lot of give and take in my game. I’m adding and subtracting a lot of velocities on different pitches that aren’t moving a ton. Sometimes if you throw an 80 mph little cutter, they might think it’s a changeup.

Other guys are a little more straightforward. It’s whap, whap, whap: Two-seamer, four-seamer, 93, 94, good breaking ball, and once in awhile, a changeup. That’s all there is. No variation. I could never get away with that. If I pitched like that, I’d get beat around the ballpark every night.

DL: How frequently do you change your arm angle?

BA: On average — let’s say I average 15 pitches an inning — probably four or fives times an inning my arm angle will be different than my normal fastball or changeup arm angle. It never goes up, only down. It could be down just a little bit, or it could be down a lot.

If I throw a backdoor breaking ball to a lefty, it could be way down. If I throw a sidearm fastball up around the chest area — maybe it’s a 1-2 or 0-2 count — that could be way down. Or I could just drop it a little bit, if I have a 1-2 or 0-2 count to a righty and want to strike him out with a sweeping breaking ball.

DL: How many signs does Ryan Hanigan use when you’re on the mound?

BA: This is what’s amazing. I probably throw as many variations of pitches as anybody in the game, yet most of my catchers — definitely Hanigan — only put down a one or a two. If he puts a one down to the outer half to a right-handed hitter, I will throw a cutter — a hard one or soft one — I will sink the ball, I’ll throw it straight, or I’ll throw a changeup. All four or five of those pitches he’ll handle without knowing what’s coming.

That makes it easier for us. They can’t pick up our signs if they’re on second base and we don’t have to fight through all these signs to show exactly what’s coming. He doesn’t need to know. He just needs to know if there will be a large variance — he needs to know if it’s going to be a breaking ball. If I throw a changeup, fastball, cutter or sink it, he can handle all the pitches in that realm. We only use two signs.

DL: Do you and Hanigan think enough alike that he usually knows which variation is coming?

BA: As you build a relationship with a guy, he catches on to your game. Sometimes we’ll be off that a bit. If I start getting hit, sometimes I’ll recalculate things, because our game plan isn’t working. My perception of what’s going on isn’t working and we need to change it up. Then I’ll have to shake him off. But for the most part, he understands. That just comes from being together a long time and him understanding my mindset. He sees that I’m checking off, so let’s do it this way.

DL: Can throwing 86 mph be more effective than throwing 90 mph?

BA: I’ve heard guys talk about guys throwing under the speed of the hitter’s bat, but for me personally, I don’t think so. If I could throw 90-91, I feel I could dominate the game. Throwing 86, I have to be more precise. There are some guys for whom 86 might be more effective than 90. For instance, maybe a guy who throws a lot of changeups. I don’t throw a lot of changeups. I depend a lot on a breaking ball, which has a hump in it. It’s more recognizable to the hitter, quicker. For that reason, I’m not really fooling them as much. I feel I need a little extra velocity to be able to make them respect my breaking ball so they can’t just live out there, looking for it. There have been guys like Jamie Moyer who did it at 80 mph. I don’t think I could ever be that guy.

DL: What is the slowest you’ll throw your curveball?

BA: I’ve seen a few 68s, maybe 67s. That’s me pretty much going with a get-me-over, nice and easy. It will go from 67-68 to 78 or 79. I know Livan Hernandez would throw his in the low 60s, but I don’t think that would be productive for me. Sixty-seven-68 is already so slow that guys are having to draw themselves back, or it’s so slow they don’t want anything to do with it. For me to dial six or seven mph off of that would affect my command and not give me that much more of a result.

DL: How many shapes do you have on your curveball?

BA: Probably four. I throw a backdoor to a lefty that is very flat. It comes in almost perpendicular to the outer half of the plate. I’ll throw what I consider a regular breaking ball, which is between a 1-to-7 and 2-to-8. Then I’ll throw a hard one that’s going to be more flat, like 3-to-8. That’s down and away to strike out righties. Then there are times I’ll try to throw one straight over the top, kind of a 12-6. So definitely three, possibly four.

DL: What about grips?

BA: My hand doesn’t change at all. The grip never changes and the grip pressure never changes. It’s mostly arm speed and arm angle. I can throw a fastball at 83 or I can throw that same fastball at 88, and you probably wouldn‘t notice any difference outwardly with my body. Internally, there’s either a relaxed or an oomph behind it. You can do that without showing outwardly that you’re getting a lot of effort. With a breaking ball, I can do the same thing. I can be 68, nice and easy, and you can’t see a difference in the effort.

DL: Have you always been the same pitcher?

BA: No, not completely. The major forks in the road for me were making my breaking ball sweepy — being able to backdoor a lefty with it or strike out a righty — and that came in 2003. I was in Boston and Pawtucket that year. And then my sinking fastball — my two-seamer — being what it is today has kind of come along in the last four or five years.

If you go back and watch tapes of me from 2003, in Boston — or even 2006, in this uniform — I had the sweeping breaking ball but I didn’t sink the ball. It was four-seam, four-seam, four-seam, breaking ball, and I’d stay to the outer part of the plate. I didn’t throw inside on righties as much. I didn’t throw nearly as many changeups. I didn’t cut the ball. I’ve definitely added more variety to my pitches as years have gone on. I kind of always threw those pitches, but they were more one-dimensional. It was more boom-boom.

I’ve always had an ability to command my breaking ball and change speeds on it. It’s just gotten more exaggerated as the years have gone on. I’ve also found ways to do more things with my fastball. I can throw a front-door sinker, which I could never do before. It’s been an evolution, without question. In 2003-2004, I had a different style of pitching. Of course, I was throwing a little harder than I am now.

DL: Will you still be pitching into your 40s?

BA: To be honest with you, I think I could pitch as long as I can throw the ball 87-88 mph. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that. Physically, weight-room-wise, on the mound, I don’t feel much different than when I was 30. I’m 36 now.

The prime of my life, as far as velocity and strength, was in 2006. I was probably throwing the hardest when I first got traded here. I was 88 to 91-92. I don’t get the ball up to 90 mph much any more. I’ve had four outings here in the spring — granted, it’s spring training and there’s not a lot of adrenaline going — and I’ve only hit 89 once. I’ve been living at 87-88.

If I can keep doing that, I think I can pitch as long as I want to. My mind is better. You get more comfortable being out there in jams. You’re not panicking in situations. As time goes on, everything is easier — except keeping your velocity.

If I were to give you a number — if you asked, “Bronson, how much longer can you pitch?” — I would say I’d honestly be shocked if I were still a major league starter when I’m 40. I probably have three years left in me. I don’t think I’ll have the velo after that. Could I come out and make a ball club? Maybe, but I’d like to walk away from this game a productive major league starter. I don’t want to be that sixth-inning, long-relief guy chucking it up there at 82 mph and having to pitch with nothing but savvy. I don’t want to fizzle out into the sunset.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Wily Mo Pena
Wily Mo Pena

Bronson could throw his breaking ball at 40mph and I’d still swing.