The Orioles' decision-makers gathered in manager Buck Showalter's office Saturday afternoon to decide their next step with Jake Arrieta. Their closed-door discussion went to the brink of the deadline to make a roster move — three hours before the first pitch of their game against the Phillies.
They weighed sending their struggling Opening Day starter toTriple-ANorfolk to work out his struggles, but ultimately decided otherwise, choosing to move Arrieta to the bullpen instead.
The 26-year-old right-hander hasn't pitched as a reliever since his first days as an Orioles farmhand in 2007, when he threw 18 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League, but that's where the Orioles will try to rebuild him and his confidence.
"I don't know," Showalter said Saturday, a day after Arrieta allowed a career-worst 9 runs on 11 hits in four innings, dropping him to 2-8 with a 6.32 ERA. "We're always trying to figure out the answers. But obviously the mental part of it plays into it. But Jake has the physical attributes, it's just the opposition doesn't really care where you are mentally or whatever. They're just looking for good pitches to hit and they're putting good swings on them."
Both Showalter and Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair called the move "old school," a retreat to the days when most pitchers would spend their first big-league innings as relievers before cracking a spot in the rotation.
"I feel like this is just a small stepping stone to where I'm going to be in my career, and if that's what needed to happen for me to get where I'm going to go, so be it," Arrieta said. "I'd have no hard feelings toward anyone in this organization.
"If me going to the bullpen right now is the move that needs to be made, then I'm completely on board with that," Arrieta added. "I've been fortunate to be surrounded by so many good people in this organization and they're going to do what's best for this team."
Ask Adair about Arrieta's struggles and he can't avoid his ugly win-loss record and ballooning ERA, but looking deeper into Arrieta's season, some of his other stats are the best he's ever had as a major leaguer.
His strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.87) is much better than last year's (1.58). His groundball-to-flyouts ratio — which is a lot of times an indicator of success — is also the best it's ever been (1.24) as a major leaguer. His pitch velocities across the board — for his fastball, sinker, slider and curveball — are all at least an average of one mph higher than last year. And up until his last three starts, his innings totals were on par.
"You look at all these numbers and the end result numbers doesn't match up with the process," Adair said. "All that being said, with his win-loss record and ERA, if you could go back and eliminate five innings, a lot of things would be different. He's given up a lot of runs in not many innings. You have to look at what's causing that."
The Orioles see some things that aren't in the stats sheets that have caused problems for Arrieta. One has been his struggles fielding his position coming off the mound. A Jim Thome roller got past him Friday night for a infield single and eventually led to a run. He dominated the Angels on the road for four innings on April 21, until committing two throwing errors that fueled a five-run fifth inning. He's been vulnerable to the bunt play, rushing his throws to first.
Also, of the 38 stolen base attempts against the Orioles, 10 of them (26 percent) have come against Arrieta.
"We just felt like going to the bullpen would give, one, a little break from the rotation and, two, take what he's doing and do it in shorter stints and smaller spurts and also get involved in the mentality of the bullpen, where its 'You have to get it done' in as many close games as we've had," Adair said. "It's kind of a challenge to overcome some of the things he's brought on himself.
"If he went toTriple-A, my gut feeling is that he'd probably dominate at that level. I don't know that for a fact, but he needs to overcome some obstacles here, some of them are not pitching related in terms of throwing the baseball."
Adair said he saw success in Seattle when Mariners left-hander Jason Vargas made a similar move. Coming off hip surgery and being sent to the minors, Vargas went to the pen for the last month of the 2009 season and returned a different pitcher. He's now on his way to his second straight 200-inning season as a starter for the Mariners.
Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel, having his best major-league season with a 6-2 record and 3.22 ERA, also benefitted from being sent to the bullpen last season in Colorado. Pitching to a 7-12 record and 5.24 ERA, he moved to the pen in mid-August, getting two spot starts along the way.
"You could definitely tell he was putting his foot on the gas there," Hammel said of Arrieta. "He couldn't take a mental break and put his foot on the brake there and stop things from going to fast. And for a lot of young pitchers, that's the trouble they run into. I did it for three years. It took me a lot time.
Hammel said he's talked to Arrieta since the move and encouraged him to take it as a "mental breather."
"It's going to be a good opportunity for him to do what I did, which is just learn how to pitch," Hammel said. "He can watch and work on things without the same pressure that just starts to weigh down on your shoulders. Obviously you're not happy about it, but I know he cares enough to want to make a change and he's going to work hard to get there. It's bittersweet. It's not fun to get a demotion, if you want to call it that, but it's an opportunity to go and fix what you need to fix."
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