I wonder if this would have happened in the days before pitch speed became a measurement available on ballpark scoreboards and TV broadcasts. I wonder if Jair Jurrjens would be headed for the minor leagues if those on the periphery didn’t keep harping about his velocity, or lack of same.
By any measure, Jurrjens has been awful over his four starts. He has lasted five innings in only one of them, and the reason he’s 0-2 and not 0-4 is that his team scored 10 runs for him in Start No. 2 and 14 in No. 3. His ERA is 9.37. Opponents are hitting .411 against him. On Monday in Los Angeles he faced 17 batters; 10 reached, five scored.
Jurrjens is pitching so badly that it can’t be called pitching at all. At issue is why he’s not pitching. Speculation continues to swirl that he’s hurt, although he and the Braves deny it. By sending him to Class AAA Gwinnett, as opposed to parking him on the disabled list, the Braves have sent a powerful indication that they don’t think there’s anything physically amiss.
Emotionally? Well, that’s another story. Speaking after Start No. 3 last week, Jurrjens sounded as confused as any demonstrably good pitcher I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a few. He sounded concerned about appearances, as opposed to results, and then he sounded concerned about being concerned.
What Jurrjens said then: “A lot of people get on me about how fast I’m throwing. I need to go back to pitching. But [velocity] is a hot topic every time I pitch. Everyone wants to see how fast I’m throwing, and that gets in your mind.”
Let the record show that Greg Maddux, who broke 90 mph on the radar gun only with a gale at his back, never gave a toss what anyone else thought. Back in 1994, Maddux handed me the absolute best description as to the folly of velocity:
You stand in the middle of the road and a car’s coming at you. Can you tell how fast it’s going? Can you tell if it’s going 55 or 60? You can’t. It’s the same standing in the middle of the diamond trying to hit a baseball. As a pitcher, you’re better off making 75 [mph] look like 85 instead of making 87 look like 90.
Even before I was given the privilege of watching Maddux and Tom Glavine work, I was of the opinion that velocity was wildly overrated. Who was the better closer: Kyle Farnsworth, bringer of the big heat but not much else, or Trevor Hoffman, whose best pitch was his change-up? If you can pitch, as opposed simply to throw, you can win big for a long time.
Some figure filberts, however, insisted all along that Jurrjens’ success wasn’t (stat-geek word here) sustainable. He didn’t strike out enough people, they said, didn’t miss enough bats. He “pitched to contact” — for the record, I hate that phrase — and sooner or later the contact would catch up to him.
Not sustainable? Jair Jurrjens had already won for five seasons. Go look it up: Even with his injuries, he’d never had a losing year in the majors. He was 50-33 on his 26th birthday. By way of comparison, the great Glavine was 53-52 the day he turned 26. (Glavine was another who “pitched to contact” — and he’ll wind up in Cooperstown having done so.)
With his smarts and his command, you could envision — well, I could — Jurrjens tracking a similarly artful career path. But now he has been demoted, and not just to the bullpen. From the All-Star game in Phoenix to Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, in 8 1/2 months: How stunning is that?
For the Braves, demotion surely was the right move. From his comments after Start No. 3, it was clear Jurrjens had lost focus, and losing focus is far more distressing that losing velocity. A good pitcher can fight through six innings on guts and guile, but Jurrjens was so confused — “I have it one inning; then I don’t have it” — he couldn’t even get through two clean ones. Nothing good was apt to happen by keeping him in the rotation, or in the big-league club’s bullpen.
I’m sure there are issues with his mechanics, as the argot has it. When a good pitcher goes bad, there invariably are. But I can’t help but believe the greater problem is that Jurrjens has stopped trusting himself and his stuff. He’s too worried about throwing hard, and he of all people should know that throwing hard doesn’t necessarily equate to getting people out. The hope here is that he remembers who he is. The hope here is this once-splendid pitcher remembers what it means to pitch.
By Mark Bradley