Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The Steady Hand: An Ode to Bronson Arroyo


Of course it ends this way.

Of course, in this inevitable moment that Bronson Arroyo leaves Cincinnati, he does so quietly. The contract is reasonable, the fan fare subdued. He reports to Arizona, he goes to work, as he always does, before we can say goodbye. Before we can realize what we’ve lost, or if we’ve lost.

The moment was coming. That much was certain. The Reds had a young rotation ready for tomorrow, for the future, and Arroyo belonged to yesterday and the past. But it’s like an old crush from the playground. Years later, even if you’ve moved on, if you prefer other prospects, you’ll think of them. An option that’s always there. Then they get married; and you’re surprised to find that it hurts, if only for a moment.

That’s me. And other Reds fans. Staring at the absence of Arroyo, feeling that tug. It hurts a little.

Which is surprising considering that, for me, Arroyo has been a source of mild frustration for several seasons, now. During his tenure in Cincinnati, with his nineteen pitches that all moved at the speed of smell, Arroyo gave up 252 home runs. That’s one more than Matt Holliday has hit in his ten-year career. In 2011, he served up 46 of those bombs; no single player in Major League Baseball hit that many that season.

And when he wasn’t serving scrambled home runs on a platter, Arroyo embodied your just-above-average pitcher. His ERA+ with Cincinnati, in eight seasons, was 105. His ERA was 4.05. He won 105 games to 94 losses. If the MLB created a robot that was simply “Major League pitcher” it would probably pitch like Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo didn’t dazzle or self-destruct; he just was.

There are quirks, of course, that set Arroyo apart from your normal pitcher. The guy could rock out. The guy could sell cars. The guy could cook delicious, healthy meals. He managed to perfect a leg-kick in his windup that seemingly stopped at a 90 degree angle, resting on an invisible stool beside the mound. Arroyo might be average, but he’s anything but normal.

But maybe it’s that unbelievable ability to be just-above-average –always– that actually made Arroyo so special.

My dad and I had this routine. We’d sit down to watch a Reds game together. I’d ask, “Who’s pitching?” And somehow, impossibly, the answer was always the same.

“Arroyo,” my dad would answer.
“Of course he is,” I’d say. “He always is.”

Arroyo, for eight up-and-down campaigns, was the steady hand of Cincinnati. As Jesse Borek noted, he effectively gave Cincinnati over 200 innings every season. He started 32 games or more every year. And with impeccable control, he actually averaged over 20 less walks per game than Roger Clemens, and only 10 less per game than the master of pitch-precision, Greg Maddux. Some of those strikes would be sent to the upper decks, but Reds fans always knew that Arroyo would put it over the plate.

Arroyo always was who we thought he was. And in that era post-1995, before Joey Votto stardom, that steadiness was a welcome respite for Cincinnati baseball. Before him, nothing seemed to last. Nothing persisted. Nothing was steady.

A late-career Barry Larkin and superstar Ken Griffey, Jr. couldn’t stay on the field. Even when their bats were steady, their bodies were broken.

A steer we named ‘Adam Dunn‘ tried to fill the void, but quickly discovered there were only three outcomes to his actions: home runs, strikeouts, and dropped fly balls. They arrived in no particular order, never average, never steady. The results were either greatness or calamity.

The list goes on. The Reds just missed playoff contention in 1999 and 2000 before rattling off nine straight losing seasons. So their place in the standings wasn’t steady. Players like Elmer Dessens, Felipe Lopez, and Jose Guillen led the team in WAR in any given season. So their…studs…weren’t steady. And between 1995 and 2008, the Reds cycled through seven different skippers. So even the steady stream of sunflower seeds came from different mouths.

In short, Cincinnati’s only identity was flux.

Enter Bronson Arroyo. Who was always pitching, always healthy, always brilliantly boring.

***

“Who’s pitching?” I’ll ask. And the answer won’t be the same.

Cause even if Arroyo wasn’t the answer, he was always the answer.

The steady hand in a world, in a sport, that never sits still.

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