By Marc Normandin
Bronson Arroyo is on the disabled list. That's a sentence that was never written at any point in his 19-year career, spanning the minors and majors, until this week, when the Diamondbacks placed him on the 15-day DL with a strained ulnar collateral ligament. You read that correctly: Arroyo pitched for parts of 19 seasons, for a combined 3,469-2/3 innings and 588 games, without ever being placed on the disabled list.
That's over now, though, and the timing is odd since the Diamondbacks fashioned a significant part of their offseason plan around the idea that Arroyo would be healthy, as he always had been. They sent pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs packing, opening up space for the signing of Arroyo, who was moving from one hitter's park in Cincinnati to another in Arizona. So long as he did what he had done since becoming a full-time big-league starter in 2005, the first of a nine-year stretch where he made at least 32 starts per season and tossed between 199 and 240 frames each time, the Diamondbacks would be all set.
The Diamondbacks are far from all set, and part of that is due to Arroyo, who has pitched nearly as poorly as he ever has as a rotation mainstay, and now finds himself missing playing time while spending his days in unfamiliar territory on the DL. It comes during a year where pitchers like Arroyo should have been appreciated more than they ever have been: Young arms, fireballing arms, have been dropping left and right and going under the knife for Tommy John surgery. Arroyo, a junkballer, has made a career of keeping away from that kind of max effort game, and has likely seen at least part of his healthy track record come from that. At the moment where his ability to stay on the mound should have merited more attention than it ever has, he too is felled by an elbow injury.
Whether or not Arroyo also ends up getting Tommy John surgery is unknown -- if he waits too long, he might end up seeing his career end because of the procedure, given it's already mid-June, and Arroyo is 37 and only under contract for one more season, anyway. That's no guarantee, though, much like getting the surgery itself is no guarantee, so we can avoid that discussion for now. Instead, let's take a look at just how difficult it is to manage what Arroyo has.
The kindred spirit of Arroyo might be retired hurler Livan Hernandez. The Cuban-born pitcher had knee surgery in the 2005 offseason, but didn't end up missing any time for it: His injury history is otherwise clean, besides an Achilles strain suffered in spring training that didn't cost him any games, either. Hernandez was, like Arroyo, kind of a junkball artist who didn't always throw as hard as he could, unless the situation called for it. He had his ups and downs performance-wise, much like Arroyo, but ended up throwing nearly 3,200 major-league innings over 17 years, all without hitting the DL.
Hernandez led the NL in innings from 2003 through 2005, posting a 121 ERA+ with the now defunct Montreal Expos over the course of 103 starts and 734 innings -- that's an average of 34 starts and 245 innings per year. He wasn't always quite that good, but the innings were almost always there, with Hernandez averaging 216 per year from 1998, his first full season, through 2011, his final full campaign. He managed a just below-average 95 ERA+ over the course of both that stretch and his entire career: Like with Arroyo, there was a ton of value in having someone who could throw that sheer volume of league-average-ish innings, especially since his teams always knew he would compile them. From 1998 through 2011, Hernandez averaged roughly two wins per year thanks to that workload.
Derek Lowe is another retired arm who managed to avoid the DL throughout his career. The 6-foot-6 Lowe had natural sink on his fastball, and that plus a nasty sinker allowed him to induce grounders for years, despite never having true strikeout stuff. Despite spending a significant chunk of his career in relief -- he was a closer from 1999 through 2001, and had bounced between starting and relief in the two years preceding that -- Lowe finished his big-league career just under 2,700 innings and 377 games started, all without any interruption from injury. From 2002 through 2011 -- the time he moved into the rotation full-time through the end of his time as a regular -- Lowe averaged 203 innings per season, and led his league in starts four times while never dipping below 32 in a given year. Unlike Hernandez and Arroyo, Lowe tended to have well above-average campaigns, too, and despite a couple of stinkers in the mix, finished up that 10-year stretch with a 108 ERA+ and nearly 2.5 wins per year. He also threw 97 playoff innings on top of that, managing a 3.42 ERA in the process.
It's not just retired pitchers who have racked up these kinds of innings, though, they are the closest thing to the 37-year-old Arroyo around. Blue Jays' starter Mark Buehrle is a kid compared to these guys, as he's "only" 35, has pitched in the majors since he was 21, and has also never visited the disabled list. His second season in the majors was his first full campaign, and it was also his first season of over 200 innings pitched. That began a streak of 13 seasons with over 200 innings, in which he's averaged 218. He's already up to 94 in the first 14 starts of 2014, so if he continues to stay healthy and take his turns as he's always done, he'll cross that 200-inning threshold for the 14th time both in his career and in a row.
Buehrle is by far the best of these arms, as he'd be a productive pitcher even if he was a bit less durable: He's averaged over four wins per season as a regular, and has already almost reached that total before the halfway point of his amazing 2014 campaign. The fact that he is this durable makes him incredible in a way that none of the other pitchers we've mentioned can match up to: Arroyo, Hernandez, and especially Lowe have all had their big moments, but Buehrle's has been going on for nearly 14 years in a row now, and if 2014 is any indication, he might have more left in the tank.
Who might be the next pitcher like this? The top candidate is probably the Royals' James Shields. While Shields was on the minor-league disabled list back in 2002 for right shoulder surgery when he was all of 20 years old, he's never been on the big-league DL, and has thrown almost 1,800 innings in his nine-year career. Shields has averaged 216 innings per season since his first full campaign with the then-Devil Rays in 2007, and he led the AL in both innings and starts in 2013. Since 2011, he's been one of the game's top hurlers, posting a 123 ERA+ while averaging over 201 innings per season. What's incredible about that 201 is that the figure includes Shields' unfinished 2014: Despite having not thrown 100 innings yet this year, he's still over 800 total over the last three-plus years.
Could he (or Buehrle) suffer an injury just like Arroyo did? Of course: If baseball has taught us anything over the years, it's that it's mean and hates the happiness we come to expect from it. Hernandez and Lowe are recent reminders that it doesn't always have to be that way, though, even at a time when the seemingly invincible Arroyo has gone down.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin