Entering the season, few stories would be better than the return to pitching for Eduardo Rodriguez. Battling a heart complication from COVID-19, Rodriguez missed the entire 2020 season. Questions lingered about Rodriguez’s long-term future in the game. Heart issues are tough to just get over and then come back from. Just recently, NBA veteran LaMarcus Aldridge retired abruptly due to an irregular heartbeat. Rodriguez returned to baseball this year and picked up exactly where he left off in 2019 and looks to get better as the season goes on. Building on what he did well in the past and making changes to his pitch mix, Rodriguez is primed to help lead the Boston rotation in a postseason push.
To understand the strides Rodriguez is making this season, we have to go back to 2019 to see what he did and where he could grow as a pitcher. That year, Rodriguez finished the year 19-4 with a 3.81 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 213 strikeouts in 203 innings pitched. He was one of just 15 fifteen pitchers to throw over 200 innings during the season.
The breakout that so many people within the Red Sox organization had been hoping for had arrived. Rodriguez had given the Red Sox a much-needed lift in a year where their pitching so desperately needed. What made Rodriguez so good in 2019 was his ability to limit hard contact and show hitters multiple different looks.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the biggest keys to success is to get soft contact. Rodriguez’s 29.9% Hard-Hit rate was good for the top 8th percentile of the league. Pairing that with a near 50% ground ball rate, Rodriguez was managing to limit the damage as much as he could. Given his problem with control, an 8.7% walk rate, Rodriguez had to work in and out of trouble a lot. His 77.6% LOB rate was 5% higher than the average and that helped contribute to his success. One might find this to be a situation where Rodriguez is just lucky, which may be a part of it, but Rodriguez has the skillset to manage his way in and out of trouble.
In 2019, Rodriguez threw six different pitches offering hitters multiple different angles. His main two offerings were a four-seam fastball and a changeup. Yet, his most valuable pitch was a cutter. According to Baseball Savant, it was worth -7 runs. 121 plate appearances ended with a cutter and hitters hit only three home runs against it. Which helped contribute to that value from Savant. His changeup was arguably his best pitch in terms of balance between results and peripherals. His changeup also offered an immense amount of arm side run. Rodriguez couldn’t get similar success with his slider and curveball, however. Rodriguez’s slider was worth 9 runs of value, his problem was that he gave up five home runs on a pitch he only threw 69 times during the year. The downside to throwing so many pitches is that Rodriguez’s pitches can start to become obvious based on release point.
Moving forward, tightening the release point variance, could help Rodriguez find more whiffs, an area of his game that could use some improvement as he was only a little above average in SwStr% in 2019. He’s also going to need to continue to keep limiting hard contact and cut down on the walks. Now, in 2021, can he do all of those things?
Early here in the season, Rodriguez has made some changes to his pitch mix. That’s both a pun and a fact. Eduardo Rodriguez is throwing his changeup as his primary pitch, 31% of the time. The pitch is now getting even more arm-side run than ever before. He’s probably adjusted the spin direction on the pitch to create more arm side run, as well as maintain the same level of vertical break on the ball. The pitch has a 30% whiff rate which is down from the previous year, but as it’s thrown more one would expect it to go down. The fact it’s still above 30% is a good sign that it’s possible to keep up this early-season success.
Rodriguez made several changes to all of his pitches. His fastball is getting less drop into the zone than before, he likely is getting more active spin on the ball. Both his cutter and his slider are getting more vertical breaks on the ball, and though they are not registering a lot of glove-side movement, the overall movement on the pitches has greatly increased.
After finding success with his cutter in 2019, he’s increased its usage here early in the season. Living by the philosophy, throw your best pitches more. He completely cut out his curveball and relies only on the slider as his breaking ball type pitch.
Something so impressive about having a changeup and cutter as two of the three most used pitches is that you have to throw them in opposite ways. It can be difficult to do for a pitcher and a skill that isn’t easily mastered. Former Yankee great Andy Pettitte said that it was something he could not do and that’s why he never threw a changeup much. He’s also tunneling the ball much better than he had in the past.
Keeping the hitters guessing about what you’re throwing and not giving away any signs will help toward being successful. Don’t think I’m saying anything too revolutionary there with that one. But a lot of pitchers struggle with it and some guys can get worse or better at tunneling the ball. For some people it matters, for others, it doesn’t. For Rodriguez, we need more sample size but early season results show that it could have an impact.
Adding some more deception into his game and narrowing his focus on which pitch types he’s offering can help Rodriguez get some more swings, and he’s still maintained a strong batted ball profile against him, but not at the rate you’d expect, so what’s made him so good this year?
Soft Contact and Strikes
Rodriguez isn’t getting the kind of soft contact he once was, but he’s still 86th percentile in average exit velocity and 65th percentile in Hard-Hit rate. The ground ball rate has fallen but that’s only because the pop-up rate has risen dramatically. If you’re not getting ground balls, then getting pop-ups is the next best option.
His changeup is still registering a launch angle near 0 on average and he’s still locating primarily in the bottom part of the zone so it will continue to be hit on the ground. His fastball is located primarily up in the zone which could help explain all of the pop up’s been able to get. Hitters are behind and under the fastball, because they are anticipating a changeup down in the zone. His fastball is averaging a 30-degree launch angle and his cutter is averaging a 27-degree launch angle on it as well. So, he is getting the ball in the air against them. But he’s only gotten two pop-ups on those pitches this year. He’s just getting some weak fly balls against it.
The area that Rodriguez has dramatically improved is his command. He’s faced 89 hitters this season and he’s walked only two of them. Yes, you’re reading that right, just two! What a dramatic turnaround, one that seems almost impossible to believe at first glance. He’s increased his zone% by nearly 12 points this year and is getting ahead with a first-pitch strike on two of every three hitters he faces. What’s even more amazing is of the 89 hitters he’s faced, he’s only started 21 of them off with a first-pitch fastball. He’s thrown 21 first pitch changeups and 24 first pitch cutters. Simply put, he’s keeping the hitters guessing early in the count and that’s setting him up for success as moves into the at-bat.
Now, a trade-off for more pitches in the zone is that you’re going to get more contact and it’s true that he’s giving up more contact this year by about 2% – but he’s getting more swings in general. His swing percentage has gone up by nearly 6 points and his swinging strike rate has gone up by about a percent. His overall whiff rate has gone down, which when relying primarily on a changeup can make sense, but Rodriguez’s strikeout rate has climbed to nearly 30%. So truth be told, it’s working. He’s getting more pitches in the zone which is turning into more called strikes which leads hitters to try and swing more often and he’s getting a few more swings and misses but he’s fooling them by keeping them guessing so they can’t take a good swing. All of that has resulted in a 3.52 ERA, 2.46 xERA, and 2.83 SIERA in 23 innings so far this year. He might have discovered a winning formula, now it’s just about maintaining it.
Rodriguez has been one of the best stories in baseball this year and his progress brings me great joy because of all that he has gone through just in the last year. Now, he’s taking some final steps in his development as a pitcher, and he’s seeing fantastic results. An easy guy to root for and an easy guy to roster on your fantasy team.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire | Feature Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)