The Reds’ Mane Attraction

Originally from Kentucky, Joshua Lars Weill lives and writes out of Washington, D.C. Follow his take on sports and culture on Twitter at @AgonicaBoss.

For things to work out right on a given night, Bronson Arroyo needs the ball to flutter, fade and drop when it’s supposed to. Never much of a power pitcher, time and toil have made Arroyo even more calculating. When the ball cooperates, the Reds right-hander can still get even the best hitters out with regularity. When it does not cooperate, as it did not almost all of last season, Arroyo is merely a 35-year-old right-hander with a ho-hum fastball pitching half his games in a bandbox stadium.

Which is why despite raised preseason expectations, Cincinnati’s 2012 season won’t come down to how many runs the team scores, how any of its offseason acquisitions perform or whether manager Dusty Baker can avoid his penchant to over-manage. Instead it will come down to Arroyo’s ability to rediscover the form that helped the 2010 Reds win the National League Central. That the sometime-cornrowed wanna-be frown-core rocker is so vital to his team’s success should be more surprising than it is. We’ve just come to accept that it’s how Arroyo operates.

A year ago, with no extra power to reach back for, and hampered by mononucleosis and a balky back, Arroyo’s rubber arm kept flinging the ball to the plate with a fastball around 86-87 miles an hour. Way too many of those pitches came careening right back and over the outfield fences – a club- and nearly NL single-season-record 46, to be exact.

“Last year, I was humping it up there at 86 [mph] a lot of times with everything I had,” Arroyo said in Spring Training this year.

For a guy like Arroyo, who has never shied from being outspoken and who enjoys cultivating a rough-hewn persona, humility comes hard. This is a guy, after all, who in 2009 admitted openly to ingesting a cocktail of over-the-counter supplements that pushed the edge of credulity.

“I do what I want to do and say what I want to say,” Arroyo said then. ”I’ve always been honest. I’m not going to stop now.”

No, the Floridian with the flowing golden locks won’t stop. But he can’t out-tough time, and he’s well aware. Never a hard-thrower, Arroyo has instead relied on guile, an array of pitches – including a big curve and a flat slider – funky arm angles and impressive resilience to craft a better-than-he-should-have baseball career in which he’s won 112 games over 13 Major League seasons. And he’s done it all with a likeable Redneck panache.

It wasn’t clear Cincinnati was getting the better of the trade that originally brought Arroyo to the Queen City. At the time, the Dominican prospect he was traded for, Wily Mo Pena, looked like a Manny-in-the-making while Arroyo looked more or less like the guy the Reds got: a pitcher who strummed guitar in the offseason, would eat some innings and keep games relatively close. At the time he was 28 and a recent World Series champion with the Red Sox. That was seven years ago.

Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays.Pena is now long gone, another in a long string of mighty mashers who missed. But Arroyo is still throwing in red-and-white, accumulating innings – he surpassed 200 in each of his first five years in Cincinnati and missed that mark by just one inning last season – and still strumming Pearl Jam covers on that tinny, black acoustic guitar. Arroyo has endeared himself to the locals off the field. The smaller and less cosmopolitan Cincinnati has embraced the offbeat Arroyo, more than tolerating his dude-rock forays and growing to love the goofjock persona he shows off in endorsement ads for various JTM meat products. Fans sense that Arroyo is genuine and true to himself, and that has made him likeable even when his fastball is flying out of the park.

That the Reds chose to re-sign the righty for three years and $35 million in 2010 quantified his value as an affordable, reliable option and as a guy the Reds can trust on and off the field. Forever cash strapped, Cincinnati simply cannot afford to pay Arroyo (or anyone else) $12 million a season to underperform. But when healthy and dialed in, Arroyo is much better than affordable and reliable, as he was two seasons ago.

Arroyo won 17 games for those playoff-bound 2010 Reds, leading the club in wins, starts and innings pitched. That team got timely hitting, strong starting pitching from a mostly young staff and caught the kind of breaks you need to catch to win 91 games in a small market, but it also relied heavily on Arroyo’s leadership and pitching consistency. Last season, with a better on-paper offense than the year before and nearly the same rotation, Arroyo’s home run troubles were a big part of the team’s disappointing sub-.500 finish. Instead of the de facto staff anchor, Arroyo was just an expensive mediocre right-hander on a team lacking a rudder.

So far this season, Arroyo has been even craftier. While he hasn’t seen a major boost in velocity, he has been mixing his pitches even more liberally than usual. He’s relying on his fastball less and his cutter and looping curve much more, just the kind of adjustment a veteran struggling to keep up with rocket-armed youngsters would make. And truth be told, it’s the kind of adjustment Arroyo has to make.

In his second start, at Washington, Arroyo was highly effective in his own way, slotting his arm down and spotting his pitches well. He allowed just three hits and a walk in seven-plus innings, and exited with a 1-0 lead. While his fastball never topped 90, pitches flopped and sank and moved the way he wanted them to. They danced the way Arroyo needs them to to be successful.

Everyone knows and Arroyo knows there isn’t that much left in his tank. His current deal expires after 2013, at which point he’ll be approaching 37 years old. This spring he told reporters, “I feel as good as I’m going to feel … if I’m throwing 85-88 consistently this year, then Bronson Arroyo is going to pitch that [way] the rest of his career.”

So long as the ball cooperates and dances and swoons, maybe that will be enough for a Reds team banking the confident veteran right-hander to stabilize a team with young arms, self-doubt and very little room for error.

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