Start your engines, because it’s going to be a long road ahead for the re-building Tigers. There’s opportunity and playing time abound for the young position players, and as much for the pitching staff. The group is trying to establish some stability, and leading the pack for the starting rotation is their proven veteran, Eduardo Rodriguez. Entering the season with a sense of urgency, Rodriguez executed his pitches well in April and strung together strong outings.
Is it sustainable, or a set of coincidental outliers? After an underperforming 2021 for the Red Sox and signing with the Tigers in 2022, in which there was an extended absence away from the club, Rodriguez seems to have changed his entire outlook in 2023. Eduardo Rodriguez has all the tools in the bag, and now he’s executing an elite plan to keep batters off balance.
Getting the Jump
Through six total starts, Rodriguez has shown a consistent setup plan: effective use of the four-seam fastball and cutter. Both have always been in his arsenal, but now there’s a change in his overall usage rate away from his calling card changeup. In prior seasons, Rodriguez used the changeup as his primary pitch to work batters. Timely enough, a Pitcher List article was written almost exactly 2 years ago to the day and noted his 31% changeup usage which at the time was highest amongst his pitch mix. In that same April time window this year, the changeup has seen a considerable dip to the overall usage of 18%.
It’s all about the fastball early, and while his velocity is in the bottom 20th percentile, it has proven useful to set up the count. Rodriguez is currently throwing a first-pitch strike 64% of the time while using his 4-seam fastball or cutter in 74% of those at-bats. It’s a consistent routine regardless of the batter’s handedness. Right-handed batters are seeing 76% fastball variants for the first pitch, while left-handers are seeing it 93% of the time. The objective is clear to start in the zone with a hard strike. The scouting report must reflect that, but Rodriguez is throwing his best pitches early, and so far it’s paid off.
Managing the Right-Handed Split
Teams have leaned into the left-handed pitching matchup against Rodriguez; so far 78% of at-bats have been by right-handed hitters. The changeup down and away is a continued source of success later in the count, but the cutter has actually been his most quality pitch vs RHB according to the PLV data:
The cutter’s quality is providing encouraging results. Rodriguez has effectively thrown the pitch on the inside half and uses it as a backdoor punch-out pitch. The data below shows the cutter’s zone volume against righties:
The output so far is exciting and led to a stretch of games that put him on a short list with an unfortunate twist with his lack of support:
The only pitchers the last 50 seasons to have a two game span of 15.0+ IP, 15+ Ks, 5 or fewer baserunners allowed, and 2 or fewer runs in support:
— Calico Joe (@CalicoJoeMLB) April 23, 2023
A fun side note is his pitch with the lowest usage rate, the slider. While he is only using it 4% of the time, we saw two times in the Twitter highlight reel above where the slider is picked from his bag and thrown to right-handed batters as a strikeout pitch. Rodriguez is burying the slider into their hands and getting whiffs. It is his most quality pitch overall according to PLV and if Rodriguez continues to use it situationally it is a great option to strikeout batters on both sides of the plate:
The game plan continues to become more clear, and with an always dangerous changeup (which he’s throwing with great accuracy down and away), Rodriguez is getting batters off balance and avoiding any significant danger. Rodriguez sports a 0.93 WHIP and 0.96 HR/9 vs RHB. Strikeouts so far have been right around the middle of the pack, so his command and execution lead to the hitter’s lack of hard contact and avoiding crooked numbers.
Evading Hard Contact and Runners
What’s jumping off the page has been his ability to avoid barrels, and keep his walk rate down. Rodriguez is in the 80th percentile or better for most contact metrics, with his HardHit% leading the way in the 89th percentile.
There have always been strengths to Rodriguez’s pitches by avoiding hard contact and attacking the edges of the strike zone. This year we’ve seen a massive improvement with balls missing barrels altogether, and allowing fewer walks, which is typically what kept him from going deep into games in the past. What’s most inspiring is how positive the early returns have been. Presently, Rodriguez had dropped his BB% to 3.6% after a career-worst 8.7% in 2022. Along with a strong Brl% to start the year, considering his low fastball velocity, it’s clear how Rodriguez has a newfound intent and focus to keep hitters guessing while staying in the zone.
PLV and General Pitch Quality Stats are provided by Pitcher List.
Player Statcast information is provided by baseballsavant.mlb.com.
Into the Summer Months
Well, April has come and gone, and the dog days of summer lie ahead. Rodriguez has proven over his first handful of starts that a new approach can lead to surprising results. Only rostered in 67% of Yahoo fantasy leagues, Rodriguez is still keeping a low profile. Opposing teams, coaches, and players have continued to sit on his changeup, which is still allowing a +2 Run Value (RV), but has seen improvement from last year where he had a career-worst +9 RV. Adjustment made. Continue to use the changeup away from right-handed hitters, but set them up aggressively with early fastballs, and even throw the inside slider to wipe them out from time to time.
Eduardo Rodriguez has been a consistent pitcher since his debut in 2015. Not including his missed 2020 season due to myocarditis, Rodriguez had started 20 or more games in all of his first six seasons, proving to be a reliable southpaw in anyone’s rotation. After his stint away from the team in 2022, he regathered with 17 starts and a 4.05 ERA. This year has proven to be a complete re-vamp for his strategy, away from relying on the changeup that he cut his teeth with in the minors, through his time with the Red Sox, and into his first free agent contract with the Tigers. Now, he’s settled in and has a new outlook for the next stage of his career. Rodriguez’s pitches may not be a blur, but he’ll have batters wondering what’s coming next.
Photo courtesy of Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)