Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mystery of Eric Arnett

     An article showed up on the Brewers team site not too long ago announcing that the team "was not giving up on prospect Eric Arnett." Who is Eric Arnett, you ask? If you don't know, no one would you. Looking at his Baseball-Reference or MiLB page, you would see he's a 23 year old right-handed pitcher who has spent parts of the last three seasons in Rookie ball and has no track record of professional success, and has been hit hard (10.3 H/9 and 1.0 HR/9) against raw, unpolished hitters, most of whom are at least a year or two younger than him.
     Given this information, you would have a hard time believing this Arnett fellow even belongs in professional baseball, let alone has a future in it. But just two years ago, Arnett was a first-round pick, with all the the glamour and upside that makes for such a high selection. Armed with a fastball that reached the mid-90s, a slider that looked like a future big-league weapon, and an excellent junior season, he looked like a good bet to one day be one of the rotation stalwarts the Brewers sorely lacked, and conservative estimates saw him Milwaukee by 2012 at the latest. To date, it hasn't quite worked out like that. All reports indicate that Arnett has lost fastball velocity, hasn't been able to develop his slider or changeup, and has had his control compromised by mechanical issues. It's likely that even Arnett and the Brewers don't know what happened to him, but that's not going to stop us. Today, we're going to take a look at Arnett's career path, what has gone wrong, and where he is now.

(Warning: This post is inevitably going to be incomplete and a little thin as far as details go, as my only tools are his college and minor league statistics and my notes from one of his starts, which I saw a couple weeks ago.)
     It's easy to second guess every wrong desicion a team makes, but there were certainly red flags present at the time Arnett was drafted. His track record of success consisted of one good junior season at Indiana, and he was a college pitcher who was expected to move at least moderately fast. Amateur statistics aren't a primary tool for predicting professional success and shouldn't be used as such, but Arnett was unable to even retire college hitters consistently his first two years of college, giving up over a hit per inning while walking over five per nine both seasons. (Granted, his opponents had aluminum bats.)       
     Things finally clicked for Arnett his junior season. He gained a couple ticks on his fastball, his command sharpened, and the results showed up as well, with what looks to be an unfortunate consequence. In his freshman and sophmore seasons, Arnett threw 35.1 and 66 innings respectively. In 2009, his workload spiked to 108 innings, which, combined with the 34.2 he would later throw in the Pioneer League, led to him more than doubling his innings count from the previous year while accumulating several high pitch-count outings close to the draft. The Brewers weren't fazed enough to avoid taking him with the 26th pick, with several teams having come close to taking him in the late teens and early twenties. He signed soon after the draft for MLB's recommended slot, and reported to the rookie-level Helena Brewers. He mostly held on to his gains, but struggled with command, walking 5.5 per nine while throwing five wild pitches in 34.2 innings.
     Arnett's 2010 season began in February per an invitation to big-league spring training that was part of his contract, and he made his full-season debut in April with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. His time in Appleton was an absolute mess. Struggling with his mechanics, Arnett's velocity dipped, his control failed to improve from his stint in Helena, and he allowed 1.5 homers per nine against hitters who were both immature physically and as baseball players. Little improved after a demotion to the Brewers' Arizona League affiliate, bringing a close to a season that was nothing less than horrifying.
     2011 saw Arnett back in Helena, where after 52 not-terribly-effective innings, he was promoted to low-A Wisconsin. A couple weeks ago, I saw him pitch there, and took some notes on his start. This is what I saw:

(Disclaimer: I am not a scout and do not have the knowledge to even imitate one. Proving my incompetence, I was using the stadium gun to measure velocity, which means the numbers may or may not be accurate. You may proceed.)

Fastball: Around 87-88 MPH initally, with a few 90s and 91s as he reached back for a little more. The pitch has decent movement.
Slider: Sits 82-84 MPH, and though inconsistent, flashes potential. Over six innings, Arnett threw multiple tight, sharp-breaking sliders, but for every excellent pitch, there would be two sloppy hangers.
Split: The pitch is in the mid-80s and has very little movement. Not a usable offering.
Command/Control: OK early in the game, when he was hit hard. (In the first two innings, Arnett appeared to be intentionally slowing down to get the ball over, as his velocity was down and his motion was noticably slower. Later in the game, his fastball occasionally reached the low-90s, but his control was compromised.) Throughout the night, Arnett had more success throwing his slider and splitter for strikes than his fastball.
Mechanics: The motion is complicated, with a big leg swing that ends with his foot pointing at the third baseman, and a low 3/4 arm slot with a lot of coil. Arnett looked very messy-his landing spot and release point fluctulated greatly.

     Compare this to the reports from his college days. It is clear that Arnett has either not developed or regressed everywhere. What caused his decline is difficult to determine, but two factors seem to provide some clues. When Arnett was drafted, he was already in Verducci Effect territory, having thrown 42 more innings than he did the previous year. The Brewers were relatively careful allocating his minor-league innings that season, not letting him go very far into games, but it now appears his suddenly heavy college workload combined with 35 professsional innings really hurt the development of a pitcher that was hardly a sure thing in the first place.
     Another problem that may or may not be related is Arnett's struggles with his mechanics, which seems to be the culprit for his sustained loss of velocity in 2010. One can see the difference between his days at Indiana and one of his recent starts at Wisconsin. The motion is more complicated and less balance without any gain in arm speed. You can see that all kinds of problems are present here, and neither I or the Brewers minor-league pitching coaches seem to know what to do about them, so consider this whole story a cautionary tale about either the fallability of even the brightest prospects, the unpredictability of pitchers, or the inherent evils of college baseball. Don't give up on Arnett, but please don't expect any miracles. There's nowhere to go but up.

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