Rolando Arrojo, The First Great Rays Pitcher

Today, the Rays are loaded with starting pitching. For every game, the Rays send to the mound a dependable major league pitcher with the ability to dominate the opposition. That was definitely not always the case. In 1998, the first year of baseball in Tampa Bay, the Devil Rays had just one starting pitcher with an over .500 record: Rolando Arrojo. Every other starting pitcher but one who made at least 15 starts was at least 6 games below .500. Let’s look back at the career of Rolando Arrojo, who was, for one season, the first great pitcher in Rays history.

Rolando Arrojo was a Cuban right-handed pitcher who pitched for 13 seasons in Cuba’s top baseball league, the Cuban National Series, posting a 154-98 record with a 3.50 ERA. He struck out just 5.1 batters per 9 innings,  but he walked just 2.0 per 9, although he is the supposedly the career leader in hit batsmen. Arrojo pitched for the Cuban National Team in the 1992 Olympics, where he tossed 9 shutout innings with 10 strikeouts, going 1-0 for the eventual gold medal winners. Just prior to the 1996 Olympic Games, Arrojo defected from Cuba and came to the United States, claiming to be 27 years old. (As we will see later, there is no chance his claim was true.)

Arrojo signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1997, when the Devil Rays had a minor league system but no big league ballclub for another year. The D-Rays kept Arrojo at High-A St. Petersburg so he would avoid facing a major climate change for Cuba, and he pitched extremely well, going just 5-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts and 89.1 IP, but he tossed 4 complete games including a shutout and struck out 7.4 batters per 9 innings while walking just 1.3 (although he hit 10 batters, 1.0 per 9) and allowing just a 0.6 HR/9 as well. His FIP, which no one cared about back then, was a nice 3.21. The Devil Rays were impressed enough with Arrojo to start him with the big league team for its inaugural season, and not only that, he was installed as their number two starter.

Wilson Alvarez tossed the first game in Tampa Bay major league baseball history. He did not pitch well, going just 2.1 innings while allowing 6 runs. Arrojo tossed the second game, pitching moderately better, allowing 4 runs in 6 innings, striking out 6 while walking 1, and that was enough for the win in the game as the Devil Rays won the first game in franchise history 11-8. Arrojo had an 8.16 ERA on the season after three starts, but he caught fire from mid-April to mid-July, going 10-5 in 17 starts with a 2.24 ERA, tossing two complete games, consecutive shutouts versus the Royals and Twins. On July 2nd, his ERA stood at 3.03 and his record at 10-6. That was enough for Arrojo to be an AL All-Star, and in the All-Star Game, he tossed a shutout inning, working around two hits and striking out one.

At the beginning of the second half, the end of the 17 start run above, Arrojo posted a 1.29 ERA in his first two starts. But that was followed by a horrid 7 start stretch where he posted a 6.64 ERA, striking out just 31 compared to 23 walks and hit batsmen. However, Arrojo did rebound with a nice finish to his season, posting a 2.57 ERA in his final 5 starts.

Arrojo’s overall numbers on the season were still very good. He went just 14-12 for the 63-win Rays, but he posted a 3.56 ERA, not generally that impressive, but his ERA+, ERA compared to the league average adjusted to ballpark, was 133, meaning he was 33% better than league average. In 32 starts, including the 2 shutouts, and 202 innings pitched, Arrojo struck out 152, a 6.8 K/9, 65 walks, a 2.9 BB/9, and 21 home runs allowed, a 0.9 HR/9. We have to add hit batsmen to the equation as Arrojo led the American League with 19 of therm, and his unintentional walks and hit-by-pitches per 9 innings ratio was a bad 3.7, and his strikeouts to walks and hit-by-pitches ratio was under 2 at 1.85. Arrojo’s overall FIP was 4.26, good for a 108 FIP+ (8% better than league average) that was nice but not nearly as good as his ERA+. Arrojo had an excellent season and he was worth 3.8 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting to Oakland’s Ben Grieve. But there were reasons for concern.

After 1998, Arrojo fell apart, going 7-12 with a 5.18 ERA in 24 starts and 140.2 IP in 1999 and a 4.95 ERA overall in 73 starts and 53 relief appearances with the Devil Rays, Rockies, and Red Sox before retiring after 4 minor league games in 2003 when he was supposedly 34 years old. For just one season, he was an outstanding pitcher for the Rays. And that was it.

Why did Arrojo collapse so quickly? There are three possible answers to that question: 1) he wasn’t a very good pitcher to begin with 2) he suffered through health problems beginning in 1999 and 3) he was quite a bit older than he said he was. The true reason probably lies somewhere in between. The league definitely adjusted to Arrojo after 1998, and his FIP showed that his ERA was bound to go up anyway. Arrojo had a ton of trouble against lefties as they hit .300 with a .855 OPS against him in 1998 and .295 with an .862 OPS against him for his career. But his drop was so precipitous that even that shouldn’t have been enough from his downfall. Arrojo should have deteriorated into an average starting pitcher, and he did as he posted a 101 ERA+ from 1999 to the end of his major league career. But he should have been more effective as he moved to a relief role and instead he was only good for one year working primarily out of the bullpen, 2001 for the Red Sox when he posted a 3.48 ERA and 3.91 FIP, before slipping to a 4.98 ERA and 4.47 xFIP in 2002 and that was it for him. Even if Arrojo had health problems, he should have been mostly his usual self when healthy and he was not. His health problems were not so bad as to preclude him from becoming a solid player for a couple more years.

And then there’s the matter of his age. Arrojo’s Wikipedia page says without a source “A 1994 Cuban baseball card gives his birthplace as San Juan de los Yeras, Villa Clara, May 29, 1964.” The Devil Rays and everyone else thought he was born in 1968, but then again, we can’t always trust Wikipedia, right? However, looking back at Arrojo’s stats in Cuba, it says that he spent 13 years in the Cuban National Series. If Arrojo was really 27 when he signed with the D-Rays, that would mean that he started in the Cuban National Series at age 15. Even Orlando Hernandez started int he Cuban National Series at age 22. We know that Hernandez was a lot more talented than Arrojo, and there’s no way Arroyo started 7 years before El Duque did. Best-case scenario, Arroyo was really born in 1964, but there’s a solid chance he was even older. Age would be a valid reason for his decline.

Rolando Arrojo had one great season. That was it. But he was the reminder that there was hope for the Devil Rays. It wasn’t until 2003 that another Devil Rays pitched posted a winning record in 10 starts or more, Victor Zambrano, and it wasn’t until 2005 and Scott Kazmir that anyone started doing that with consistency. But Arrojo was the sign that it could happen. Arrojo was the pitcher that made Devil Rays fans interested at least every 5th day and made fans excited for the time when every day the Rays would be able to churn out an exciting starting pitcher. That time is now.

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(Cover Image credit Stephen Dunn, Allsport Images.)

Topics: Rolando Arrojo, Scott Kazmir, The Devil Rays Years, Victor Zambrano, Wilson Alvarez

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