For a four-season stretch, from 2008 to 2011, Jair Jurrjens started 108 games for the Atlanta Braves and posted a 47-32 record with a 3.34 ERA. He maintained decent but not great strikeout-to-walk ratios, and allowed fewer than a home run per nine innings. After making the All-Star team in 2011, Jurrjens fell off in the second half. His troubles carried over into 2012, where he went 3-4 with an ERA above 6.00 in 11 appearances. The Braves demoted the beleaguered right-hander in early April, and he never recaptured his former flourish, thanks in part to a groin issue.
Jurrjens was non-tendered over the winter, which ended his tenure in Atlanta. Concerns about the health of his right knee, as well as his performance over the past 18 months, prevented him from landing a big-league deal on the open market. Instead, Jurrjens settled on a minor-league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. After making eight successful starts for Norfolk, the O's Triple-A affiliate, Jurrjens returned to the big leagues on Saturday and faced the Tampa Bay Rays.
Despite Jurrjens' relative youth, the 27-year-old's velocity has declined considerably over the past few seasons. Previously throwing in the low-to-mid 90s, he now tops out around 89 mph. In place of velocity he relies heavily on his fastball's movement, a low-80s changeup, a slider that is a few ticks slower, and location.
Jurrjens 2.0 looked a lot like the previous incarnation. He still lined up on the third-base side of the rubber and displayed similar mechanics. This includes: a chest-high leg lift, hands breaking around the waist, and a distinct spine-tilt as he released the ball. Facing a surprisingly potent Rays' lineup, he changed speeds and varied location to mixed results.
The Curaçao native started strong. Beginning with Ben Zobrist in the bottom of the first inning, he struck out four consecutive batters, including the side in the second inning. He spotted two upper-80s fastballs for called strikes to Zobrist before switching to the offspeed for the kill. Zobrist fouled off one change before swinging over the top of an 82-mph pitch for the strikeout.
In the top of the second inning, Jurrjens retired the hot-hitting Evan Longoria without a swing. Jurrjens started the at-bat with a fastball for strike one, earned another called strike with a changeup, and then went back to the fastball for strike three. Following Longoria, James Loney faced a similar fate as Zobrist. After watching a few fastballs to start the at-bat, the owner of the AL's second-best batting average went down swinging on a changeup below the zone. To complete the quartet of punchouts, Jurrjens leaned on his "hard" stuff. He struck out Rays' designated hitter Luke Scott on three fastballs, the final pitch hitting 90 on the gun.
As the Rays' lineup flipped over in the third inning, Jurrjens changed his process. He faced seven batters in the inning and started five of the plate appearances with something other than a fastball. Unfortunately for him, the switch in strategy backfired as Tampa Bay scored three runs on four extra-base hits, including a home run by Matt Joyce on a changeup.
Jurrjens returned to the fastball-first approach over his final two frames. He started six of the last nine batters he faced with fastballs. In the biggest moment of the game -- two on and two out in the fifth inning of a 6-4 game with Longoria at the plate -- Jurrjens reversed course once again. He started the at-bat with a changeup in the dirt for ball one. Longoria was clearly expecting a fastball on a 1-0 pitch and took a huge cut. Instead of the heater, he received an 83 mph offspeed pitch. Despite poor location, Tampa Bay's franchise player was out in front. Longoria fouled off a third changeup before grounding out to third on a fastball for the last out of the inning.
The final line on Jurrjens was not great: He allowed four runs on six hits and walk in five innings. Still, he struck out five batters and pounded the strike zone. He threw 75 pitches, of which 51 were strikes. He was primarily a fastball/changeup pitcher with a handful of sliders mixed in for some added variety. The game is a microcosm of the two sides of Jurrjens. When he commands his pitches and mixes location and speed, he can be an effective big-league starter. When he doesn't, he can't.
The most important parts of Jurrjens' start were that he (A) made it and (B) looked healthy in doing so. Although Jurrjens is not the front-line starter the O's desire, he could be a useful piece of depth. With Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez on the disabled list, finding able bodies is a more pressing than finding an ace. If Jurrjens pitches like he's capable of, then he could be part of the solution.
Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report, a Tampa Bay Rays blog.