"I think a year like this makes you realize how hard it is," said Guthrie. "For two years, I was able to execute consistently in a tough division and a tough league. This year, the numbers weren't there. My friend sent me a text one day and said, 'Who's the only AL pitcher to have a 3.70 ERA or less the past two years?' I was the guy, and you don't always realize that at the time. I was in an elite class, but unfortunately, I couldn't do it for a third year. Fausto Carmona won 19 games two years ago and now he's 5-12 with an ERA north of 6.00. It's never easy."
And nobody knows that better than Guthrie, a former first-round draftee who had to resurrect his career from the waiver wire. The right-hander gave the Orioles two seasons of solidly above-average pitching, and he's not really sure what he did in 2009 to cause his walks and hits per inning (WHIP) and opponents' batting average to spiral out of control.
One thing he does know, he said, is that he's going to use his struggles as fuel for the offseason fire.
"In all aspects of sports and life, you learn through adversity. You use it to your benefit and you use it to learn and get better," he said. "I think it was a lot of things. It's been location at times and wrong pitch selection at times. It's been lack of execution many times, and I even think luck has something to do with it. Sometimes, things just don't go in a positive direction. You throw one pitch and you get a groundout. You throw the same pitch an inning later and it gets hit for a home run. You can't always explain it and that's what makes baseball such a difficult game."
For two years, Guthrie made it look easy. He earned a long-relief job in 2007 and quickly parlayed that into a rotation slot, a job he earned with consistent results. Guthrie held opponents beneath a .250 batting average and posted a WHIP under 1.25 in 2007 and '08, only to allow a .281 average and put up a 1.42 WHIP in '09.
Thankfully, the downturn doesn't appear to be injury-related. Guthrie said he felt strong and well conditioned all year, and he didn't think that his participation in the World Baseball Classic has anything to do with his performance. Guthrie took the results on his shoulders and said he expects to try some new things this winter.
Part one of that process will be an increased reliance on video, a study tool that will help him compare and contrast what he was doing when things were going well and when things went haywire. Guthrie said he's never really used video too much in the past, but he started checking things out down the September stretch.
"I think it's worth looking at this year just to see how dramatic the difference was in my approach," he said. "Was I too heavy on a certain pitch? Was I too predictable in other things I had done in the past? Maybe I will dedicate some time to that in October and November, but my workout time as far as weights and throwing typically doesn't start until December. As far as the cardio side and staying in shape, I don't ever really take a break from that."
As far as the nuts and bolts on what he has to improve, Guthrie circled two things: fastball command and a sharper breaking ball. Guthrie throws in the mid-90's consistently but has never really been a strikeout pitcher, and batters used his fastball against him in 2009 to the tune of a league-high 35 home runs allowed.
Now, the former Stanford student wants to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.
"Two years ago, my goal was to improve my changeup," said Guthrie. "[Pitching coach] Rick Kranitz came on board and asked me to do that, and if you look at my pitch selection this year, you'd see that I've trusted my changeup more than I ever have in my career. I've thrown it far more than I ever have, and almost to a fault sometimes. This year, I'll try to improve on a curveball that's been relatively non-existent for me and do the standard things I always do."
Guthrie, Baltimore's most experienced starter by a wide margin, took his role as mentor seriously last season and could often be seen discussing the craft with his rookie teammates. That's a job he knows he'll have to keep working at next season, but he hopes to pitch better and invest his advice with more weight behind it.
"The best leadership is example," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't do as well in that department as I would've liked to. I would've loved to go out there and compete at a higher level, to get deeper in games more consistently. I've been able to talk about a lot of things with [Jason] Berken, [Brad] Bergesen, [Brian] Matusz, [David] Hernandez and [Chris] Tillman. It's an important role when you're the veteran and hopefully it will help them to hear it from someone else."
Guthrie, who will turn 31 shortly after Opening Day 2010, is pretty realistic about the team's current standing. Guthrie likes the direction the Orioles are going with the young personnel, but he wants to remind people that straight-line success is no guarantee, a lesson he learned the hard way as a prospect and again last season.
"Just because you brought people up and they got experience doesn't mean that you're going to be better next year," Guthrie said. "I think we can be honest with ourselves and with our fans. Each of us has to improve, and just because we have an extra year of experience doesn't make us automatically better. If all 35 guys that are here today go home, work and become better players -- and if we complement that with a couple moves -- then yeah, this will have been a beneficial year for everybody. But the responsibility still lies with each individual player to get better."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.