Jurrjens to the minors: How does a good pitcher go so bad?

Jair Jurrjens on a dark Monday in L.A. (AP photo)

Jair Jurrjens on a dark Monday in L.A. (AP photo)

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

150 comments Add your comment

Whiskey Breath

April 24th, 2012
7:57 am

Probably taking advise from newspapers instead of his coaches.

Taxi Smith

April 24th, 2012
8:03 am

Like any athlete in a skill position will tell you, it’s all between his ears. You don’t just suddenly lose physical talent or ability. He needs a good coach to sit him down and then a few wins in AAA. Good luck Jair!

Home of the Braves

April 24th, 2012
8:06 am

chuckw/deadjournalist

April 24th, 2012
8:09 am

First, good for the Braves for making this move. Jurrjens was the worst member of this rotation so far in 2012, and optioning the pitcher who was in the discussion for starting the All-Star game last year isn’t something all organizations would do.

One thing not mentioned in the piece, that could be adding pressure for Jurrjens, is that he’s only a year away from free agency. In his last two seasons, he missed about 15 starts each, and he was carrying the “injury risk” stigma. I wonder if his concern around his loss of velocity, etc., was/is more about that than anything.

Because as you note, if there’s an organization that understand location and pitching acumen trumps velocity, it is the Braves.

Loki

April 24th, 2012
8:09 am

The Bravos need him if they want to compete in the East. I hope he figures it out; he is a beast when he’s on.

Mark

April 24th, 2012
8:11 am

The Braves have too many good pitchers to put up with these kinds of outings. I’m confident he will rebound but we can’t send someone down that is pitching good (Delgado) and keep someone up that is struggling. Go down there and find what you have lost and come back and help the Braves win the Division. Go Braves

Kevin

April 24th, 2012
8:12 am

Good thing we are deep with starters.

Lady Luck

April 24th, 2012
8:12 am

Demoting Jurrjens is what is needed to get him help. The kid can pitch but something is in the way. Sending him down will help figure that out. They should have done the same thing to Heyward last year but they let him destroy his confidence the entire year. What good did that do.

Hurry back Jurrjens. We need you.

Home of the Braves

April 24th, 2012
8:14 am

Does that mean that JJ’s roster spot will be filled by someone like Cory Gearrin or Buddy Carlyle until Hudson is needed in the Pirates series?

bhunt

April 24th, 2012
8:14 am

MB – Don Sutton made a good observation last night. Said he doesnt appear to be getting out in front of his left knee on his release, which casues him to be more upright, which in turn takes away movement from his fastball. if that holds true, and he is not injured, he has a huge mental block regarding the knee. he needs to get over that!

JF McNamara

April 24th, 2012
8:15 am

Keep your head up JJ. There are a lot of people in this town that believe in you. We’re cheering for you to work hard and get it straightened out.

Freddi and Wren and the other Stooge

April 24th, 2012
8:15 am

The 2nd coming of Kwakami/Kawasaki/HeriKeri. Good Luck in ur next career Jurrjens.

No Fastball

April 24th, 2012
8:16 am

The reason everyone focuses on the lack of velocity is that he uses to pitch in the low 90’s when he was effective. Now that the velocity is gone, there is not a sufficient difference between off speed pitches and a fastball. JJ must find his fastball again or else he needs to reinvent the way he pitches. He will never have Maddux’s movement or ability to hit a target. Sad but true.

bhunt

April 24th, 2012
8:17 am

Home of the Braves – huh? i hope thats not a serious question. those two are by far the worst on the staff and should go down to AAA with JJ. I may be wrong, but given the schedule i think they can work with a 4 man staff until Huddy comes back. Although, they will call someone up, not sure who that is. JT?

Old Guy

April 24th, 2012
8:18 am

I don’t know if I like this move or not. From almost an ace to AAA – come on man. He’s a 3 on most other clubs and as a five he might have been able to get his groove back.

Kawasucki Jurrjens

April 24th, 2012
8:18 am

Maybe we can trade this waste for a bag of bats and balls…..then we would come out on the good end of the trade……..

DaveinNEPA

April 24th, 2012
8:18 am

It’s been pretty obvious since the beginning of ST that Jurrjens just isn’t the same.

Last night even balls that went for outs were hit hard. Let’s hope that a trip to AAA gets JJ straightened out.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

April 24th, 2012
8:18 am

Mark:

Do you think there is any friction between Frank Wren and Fredi G? It just seems conspicously obvioius that Fredi G tends to find things out after the fact. With Parrish last year, Fredi was on the record stating that there would be no off-season moves with the coaching staff, only to have the hitting coach released 24 hours later. Now with Jurrjens, he says they haven’t considered any missed starts for the pitcher as the game just ended and 30 minutes after that statement, Wren demotes Jurrjens to the Minors. Am I being paranoid and this is just how baseball works?

I dunno, it just seems like they could have waited 24 hours, discussed it with Fredi G, and had him make the annoucement. With all the criticisms that Fredi G has had to deal with since last season and early this season, it doesn’t help the perception of the Braves’ higher-ups confidence in Fredi G.

JDHGT

April 24th, 2012
8:20 am

Good piece, Mark. I wonder if the talk from the critics hasn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was surprised when I started hearing the rumblings from scouts and national reporters/columnists about how JJ didn’t have the velocity to maintain his success. I hope he can clear that talk out of his head and get back to pitching in the mold of Maddux and Glavine. Location, location, location.

Cap Tipper

April 24th, 2012
8:20 am

You just gotta tip your cap to the Dodgers, and every other team that smokes us this season.

bruce

April 24th, 2012
8:20 am

yikes, hope he figures it out quick and this is forgotten by the allstar break

bhunt

April 24th, 2012
8:20 am

he is not getting out in front of his left knee on his release. which could contribute to a loss in velocity, but more importantly is contributes to a loss in movement on his fastball. thats tailing action is completely gone. you can see it in his picture on the front page, he is way behind his knee. he is scared to put the pressure on it. all mental.

Marteen is a Ballplayer

April 24th, 2012
8:21 am

I’m glad most early responses are that Jurrjens will come back and be his old self…just needs to work some things out…ala John Smoltz when he had his psychologist (Llewellen (sp)?) sit behind home plate…that seemed to work.

coach13

April 24th, 2012
8:22 am

They want to know your velocity as a measuring stick.You can’t coach 94. It’s baseball’s equivalent to the 40 yd dash. JJ was never a flame thrower so it’s not as if he’s dropped 10 mph. He could have an injury that we don’t know about. Last night was the first time he hasn’t recorded a strikeout in 43 starts. That’s not because of velocity.

So much for trading him.

Shug

April 24th, 2012
8:23 am

Maddux’s fastball was around the high 80s; if he suddenly changed so that it was consistently in the high 70s or low 80s that would be a pretty strong sign that something’s wrong. (Regardless of whether a person standing in the middle of the interstate could tell the difference between a car going 78 and one going 88.)

dean

April 24th, 2012
8:24 am

Location, location, location!

Marteen is a Ballplayer

April 24th, 2012
8:25 am

Mark:

My first post didn’t appear to take. Do you think it is strange that Fredi G seems to be out of the loop on big moves? Last year, he said no changes to the coaching staff and Larry Parrish was fired 24 hours later. Now he indicated no rash decisions on a missed start for Jurrjens, but 30 minutes after that statement, Frank Wren demotes Jurrjens. It just seems the Braves would be better off waiting a day, discussing it with Fredi, and having him make the announcement. The way it broke down appears that Fredi G wasn’t even consulted. With all the criticism of Fredi G in the fanbase, it doesn’t help when the higher-ups don’t appear to have confidence in Fredi G or his input into the decision…maybe I’m just paranoid and this is how baseball works.

Beauvighn

April 24th, 2012
8:27 am

Now, Put Medlen in the rotation and send delgado to AAA along with him and we have a chance every night.

Steve

April 24th, 2012
8:31 am

I think he should take a cue from John Smoltz and go see a sports psychologist.

ragnar danneskjold

April 24th, 2012
8:34 am

Perhaps this means the best pitcher on the staff – Kris Medlen – will be starting again?

ragnar danneskjold

April 24th, 2012
8:34 am

In fact, Livan pitched credibly last night, we could do worse, and have done so.

Dean

April 24th, 2012
8:41 am

Keep working JJ, you still have it! You just need to work on your mechanics and get your confidence back.

NCBravesFan

April 24th, 2012
8:44 am

Velocity and movement – you can win with one or the other (or both) … but it’s just about impossible to win when you have neither.

beef pocoroba

April 24th, 2012
8:44 am

bhunt said : “he is not getting out in front of his left knee on his release. which could contribute to a loss in velocity, but more importantly is contributes to a loss in movement on his fastball. thats tailing action is completely gone. you can see it in his picture on the front page, he is way behind his knee. he is scared to put the pressure on it.”

i have been thinking the exact same thing. it seems so obvious watching him.

BUT wouldn’t a team of trained professionals who have been watching him pitch for years be making that same observation if that was the problem? how come we don’t hear anyone in the Braves organization saying this? or have they, and i just missed it?

hope to see JJ back to his old self soon

Bill

April 24th, 2012
8:47 am

Mark I remember talk about trading JJ before the All-Star break last year. In retrospect that looks like a mistake. Do you recall anything substantive about those trade talks?

Larry

April 24th, 2012
8:48 am

“How does a good pitcher go so bad?”

Mark,

What the difference between the winning car and the last place finisher at Indy or Daytona?

About 4-5 mph…this same mph Jurrjens has lost off his fastball.

sldkfjslk

April 24th, 2012
8:48 am

Opponents are hitting .411 against him.

chuckw/deadjournalist

April 24th, 2012
8:51 am

Either his knee is still hurt or he doesn’t trust his knee.

Larry

April 24th, 2012
8:53 am

Marteen is a Ballplayer,

No, this is an utter but well warranted lack of respect of a manager that piloted one of the worst collapses in MLB history and never positively influenced the outcome of a game. FG is a worm body with hardly a pulse and clearly a low cognitive aptitude.

Can you invision for a moment either Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Earl Weaver or Tommy Lasorda not being included in such a decision? Nah!

md

April 24th, 2012
8:55 am

I remember a similar situation where one of our pitchers went through this kind of funk (Mark’s favorite Brave)……he then sought council from Dr Llewellyn……..Smoltz had gone 2-11 in the first half, 12-2 after talking with the Doc……..maybe JJ needs to do the same.

Larry

April 24th, 2012
8:57 am

chuckw/deadjournalist

April 24th, 2012
8:51 am

“Either his knee is still hurt or he doesn’t trust his knee.”

Wrong…stop making excuses! He started losing velocity BEFORE the knee injury but got by on a lot of smoke and mirrors and good fortune in the first half last season.

He’ll either need to reinvent himself as a deceptive type of pitcher or he’s done, becuase clearly his days as a good fastball pticher are behind him.

bvillebaron

April 24th, 2012
8:57 am

Simple; he has lost his confidence perhaps as a result of (1) reading too many newspapers; and (2) still thinking about his knee and the brace. Hopefully, the trip to AAA will get him straightened out; you don’t put up the kind of numbers he did before he got hurt because he was lucky.

crackbaby

April 24th, 2012
9:04 am

Love the Mad-Dog quote, MB. Thanks!

PMC

April 24th, 2012
9:05 am

I think his knee isn’t right. I think his mechanics are off somewhere and that’s why his velocity is down and his location is poor.

crackbaby

April 24th, 2012
9:06 am

JJ just needs to get his location back. Easier said than done but hopefully he can relax and take a few weeks to focus on technique and rhythm.

What Troy Aikman says about NFL QBs applies to MLB pitchers, the most important measure of success at that level is ACCURACY.

PMC

April 24th, 2012
9:07 am

The only reason velocity even matters is in the difference between the speeds of pitches.

Maddux was brilliant because of his ability to locate his pitches and change speeds… not to mention Maddux threw strikes and trusted his defense. Maddux was ridiculously efficient.

StungByAYellowJacket

April 24th, 2012
9:07 am

I too agree with everyone who states that his mental state in regards to his knee is the problem, it’s quite clear that Jurrgens isn’t confortable at all out there, I think he might perhaps be trying too hard to make an impression when perhaps his knee (or at least his mental state regarding the knee) isn’t together. Jurrgens seems to be holding something in, something that he isn’t even discussing with the Braves Personnel, he needs to let someone know what’s really going on, something tells me that we might need him come September/October.

Go Go Pilots

April 24th, 2012
9:09 am

they trade him soon watch after few starts and being knock around bad next score be at AA- ball retool his pitchin if that no works he can go into salein cars at Carfax next!

chuckw/deadjournalist

April 24th, 2012
9:10 am

Larry –

There’s a great graphic that charts JJ’s pitch velocity range, including high/low and average for his career. His velocity didn’t dip until mid-’10. Then there was another dip around the time that he injured his knee. You can see significant decline from pre-’10 injury to ‘12.

You are correct that he may need to reinvent himself as a pitcher, but don’t discount the injury issue.

Here’s the link to the fangraphs piece chart: http://www.fangraphs.com/fgraphs/5556_P_FA_20120423.png

On Maddux and JJ « Rowland's Office

April 24th, 2012
9:10 am

[...] may just need to clear his head, writes Mark Bradley, who spoke with the now-Gwinnett Brave after his last start in [...]