D-backs Look for Rock 'n' Roll Pitching from Bronson Arroyo
It's not difficult to imagine that Bronson Arroyo lives life like a rock star.
The Arizona Diamondbacks' new pitcher has long blond hair, makes millions of dollars, likes to party, and actually has a rock album that reached Billboard charts.
The reality is quite different.
In the clubhouse at the Diamondbacks' spring training facility at Salt River Fields. Arroyo reached into his locker and pulled out an old black flip-phone.
"This is very significant to me," he says.
The reason he still uses the phone is the same reason he's still pitching on a major league roster at age 37 — lessons learned from his old man.
One of them was don't waste your money. Arroyo got the phone in an endorsement deal in the mid-2000s, so why buy a new one?
Another lesson was the importance of physical fitness.
It's not obvious from his tall, lanky frame, but Arroyo spent thousands of hours of his childhood in the weight room with his father, Gus. From the weightlifting and conditioning to routines of a strict diet and supplements.
"When I first got [into professional baseball] in 1995, they looked at me like I was crazy," Arroyo says. "I've been doing this stuff all my life."
It was all part of a routine that started when Arroyo was 6 years old, and the family lived in Key West, Florida.
Gus, a Cuban immigrant, never was into baseball — he was a weightlifter. However, once he saw his son's athletic ability during his first day of tee-ball, he began instilling the physical workout routine that Bronson stuck to for years.
By 8 years old, 59-pound Bronson was squatting 250 pounds.
He can still recite the routine he went through every day after school: eat something, take supplements, stretch, warm up, throw long-toss or a bullpen session, take ground balls, then go through the weightlifting routine, followed by some endurance cardio, and finally go inside for dinner.
During these workouts, his father also prepared him for life as an adult.
"He didn't talk to me like, 'Do you have a girlfriend?' I don't know what other parents talk to their kids about, but I know they weren't talking about the stuff he was," Arroyo says. "He was talking about a philosophy of life, not squandering opportunities because they wouldn't last forever, saving your money because it might not come around again, showing up on time, your work meaning something, and having enough courage to face the things that you're fearful of."
While there are always stories of parents pushing their kids to be top athletes — in many cases, tales of them pushing their kids too hard — Arroyo says the hours he spent working with his father paid off because his dad always was overwhelmingly positive.
"Over the long haul, he made me have a really good foundation physically, which is why I don't miss many starts, and mentally, to go into this game [of baseball]," he says.
Most high school players don't move on to a career in pro baseball. Even fewer establish a career in the big leagues. Even fewer last in the game into their late 30s.
For players who begin their pro careers upon graduating high school at 18, like Arroyo, the challenges are immediate. Groups of teenagers are living on their own starting out in the minor leagues, with little money to live on, and peer pressure can run high. Many guys don't succeed, but Arroyo's father prepared him for this situation.
He remembers reporters asking him about his nerves before his first career playoff start. Arroyo, then a 27-year-old member of the Boston Red Sox, was starting game three of the American League Division Series in 2004 against the Anaheim Angels at Fenway Park.
He wasn't nervous.
"I probably was more nervous as a 7- or 8-year-old kid on the field," he says now.
Arroyo gave up two runs over six innings but earned a no-decision, as it took the Red Sox 10 innings to finish off the Angels in the best-of-five-games series. Of course, the Red Sox went on to win their first World Series in 86 years.
A bulging disc caused him to miss some of spring training, but his durability in the game demonstrates that the 30-plus years of physical conditioning have paid off for Arroyo, who signed a two-year, $23.5 million free-agency contract with the Diamondbacks in February after coming over from the Cincinnati Reds.
Fitness and the flip-phone — his father taught him well.
The importance of pitching in the National League is obvious: Last season, the five teams that made the postseason were ranked first through fifth in team ERA and opponent OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers is well aware of this.
"Our fate will really depend on how well we throw the ball [and] how well our bullpen does," Towers told New Times before the 2013 season.
After the team finished with an 81-81 record in 2012, Towers replaced the weakest links in the team's bullpen and starting rotation. And nothing went according to plan.
Ian Kennedy, the staff ace, amassed a 3-8 record and an ERA above 5.23 before he was traded to the San Diego Padres in July.
Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy both sustained injuries and were underwhelming while healthy.
And the bullpen was a disaster.
The once-reliable set-up man/closer combination of David Hernandez and J.J. Putz became anything but reliable, and Putz sustained an injury that kept him out nearly two months. The acquisition of closer/reliever Heath Bell turned out to be a bust.
The Diamondbacks led baseball in blown saves, en route to finishing with another 81-81 record.
This year, the team's front office wanted to pull in a starter, perhaps an ace.
The team showed interest in a trade for the White Sox's Chris Sale, the Rays' David Price, or the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, none of which materialized. According to a Japanese newspaper, the Diamondbacks were one of five teams that offered a contract worth more than $100 million for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who ultimately selected a larger payday, of course offered by the New York Yankees.
A few weeks later, the Diamondbacks signed Arroyo, who's never been considered an ace in his 14-year career.
His fastball averages about 87 miles per hour. He doesn't strike out a lot of hitters, and he's never had a 20-win season.
"I've never been a superstar. I've never been a guy who throws 95 mph, but you have to accrue some sort of database for people to value what you do in this game," Arroyo says.
Indeed, he hasn't been brought to the D-backs as an ace. And you don't have to be an ace to be a stellar pitcher. Arroyo fills other needs — he's pitched more than 200 innings in eight of the past nine seasons (he pitched 199 innings in one season), and he's posted a winning record in five of his past six seasons.
The innings issue is significant, because no relief pitcher in the National League logged more innings last year than the Diamondbacks' Josh Collmenter, who's usually brought in when a starter is bounced from a game early.
Consider that, last year, McCarthy and Cahill combined for 47 starts, only 19 of which were considered quality starts — allowing three earned runs or fewer while pitching six or more innings. With the Reds in 2013, Arroyo started 32 games and had 22 quality starts.
Having someone who's been consistent throughout his career is a different taste for the Diamondbacks, an organization that's been plagued with pitching problems in the post-Randy Johnson era.
Brandon Webb, after winning the Cy Young in 2006, finished second in Cy Young voting in 2007 and 2008, but his career effectively ended the next year because of shoulder problems.
Max Scherzer, the Diamondbacks' first-round pick in 2006, didn't do anything stellar in his time with the Diamondbacks and was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 2009. He won the Cy Young with the Tigers last season.
Acquired in the trade for Scherzer was Ian Kennedy, who was a Cy Young candidate for the Diamondbacks in 2011 but never came close to playing at that level again and was traded by the team last year.
Daniel Hudson needed Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament in 2012 and while, preparing to come back from that injury, injured the ligament again, requiring another Tommy John surgery.
Trevor Bauer, a former first-round prospect, was traded before the 2013 season after disappointing pitching performances in the big leagues. This off-season, Tyler Skaggs, also a former first-round pick, met the same fate.
Earlier this month, it was reported that the team's top pitcher last season, Patrick Corbin, may need Tommy John surgery on his elbow. He underwent the procedure Tuesday, March 25, and will be out for the season.
Indeed, if there's ever a team that needs a consistent pitcher, it's this one.
Arroyo's never made a trip to the disabled list in his career. Knock on wood. He did miss that time in spring training this year with the bulging disk in his back, but it doesn't appear to be a significant injury.
On the mound, just as in many other aspects of his life, Arroyo does things differently.
He has a high, straight leg kick in which his foot nearly reaches head-level. He throws from multiple arm angles. And expect to see him shaking his head at pitch calls from veteran catcher Miguel Montero.
"I probably call my own game as much as anyone who's ever played the game," he says. "I pretty much shake off every pitch unless he just guesses what I want."
Arroyo has a fascination with reading people, in baseball and in other facets of his life. His perceptions of hitters are why he likes to call his own pitches and why he's been so successful doing it over his career.
"It's because I have pitched with non-dominating stuff, but calculating the next move," he says. "[I'm] beating you in the chess match by watching the shit you're laying down with your body language, with your eyes, with your anger, with your emotion."
"You fuckin' suck, bro!"
Arroyo heard this one from a bar patron in Cincinnati.
Most people would either ignore this guy or hurl back something equally nasty. Anyone expecting that out of Arroyo doesn't know him well.
"You just threw some shit at me. You thought you were gonna get backfire because that's what everyone else is gonna do to you," Arroyo recalls. "And I just went, 'Yeah, you're probably right, bro.'"
Arroyo bought the guy a drink and engaged him in a pleasant conversation.
That's the other side of Bronson Arroyo. Outside baseball — and his meticulous diet and exercise routines — he's a happy-go-lucky guy.
He's often spotted at bars, but he says he hardly drinks — he just likes interacting with people. He'll hang out with just about anyone, from an MLB player with a bad reputation to some old lady he meets at the ballpark to the jackass at the bar.
He's earned that good-guy reputation over the years, but he's also earned a rep as an oddball.
"I've always been a bit of a mixed bag," he says.
This became clear to him back in 2004, when his then-wife pointed out that he was driving around Boston in a Hummer, with his hair in cornrows, listening to Toby Keith on the stereo.
Not long after that, after he won a World Series ring as a member of the Red Sox, he released his own album, Covering the Bases, loaded with covers of '90s rock songs like Pearl Jam's "Black" and Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Something's Always Wrong." According to Billboard, the album debuted at number two on its "Heatseekers" chart in 2005.
Arroyo's known for bringing his guitar on road trips during the season, and he says his new Diamondbacks teammates already have been exposed to his musical talent.
He says this team's different from any he's been on, in the sense that fellow players value an acoustic set of Alice in Chains.
Turns out, second baseman Aaron Hill and outfielder Mark Trumbo play guitar, too, and Trumbo also plays drums, so rock 'n' roll's a mainstay in the D-backs' clubhouse.
Arroyo says he'll probably make another album once he's done with baseball, but he's in no rush to commit to anything.
He wants the next album to include his original work, and instead of having the backing of professional session musicians, as on Covering the Bases, he'd like to have his friends with him in the studio. (Some of his friends happen to be in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gnarls Barkley.)
Despite talk of life after baseball, and despite his 37 years, Arroyo acts like he's not approaching the twilight of his career. He says he's always been 18 at heart and doesn't believe in the concept of being "too old" for anything.
Well, except for cornrows. Then, again, he won't rule them out.
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