An Appreciation of Francisco Rodriguez

Francisco Rodriguez is perhaps getting closer to riding off into the sunset, at least as the analogy applies to ninth-inning and/or high-leverage responsibilities.

The man dubbed K-Rod has, quite frankly, has been awful this season. He’s blown four saves already, and back-to-back opportunities in back-to-back days in Oakland over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon Ryon Healy
did this …

Which came less than 24 hours after this ….

Those are not well located sub-90 mph pitches. Hopefully no one reading this had a tougher weekend experience than that of KRod.

Reported Detroit Free-Press reporter Anthony Fenech after Saturday’s loss:

“As it goes forward, we haven’t had any discussions about doing anything or closing anyone else other than Frankie,” [Tigers manager Brad] Ausmus said. “Until we decide otherwise, he’s going to be our closer.”

Rodriguez had no answers, either.

Too despondent to take questions from reporters, his head buried in his hands, he finally unlaced his cleats a half-hour after arriving at his locker. He shook his head. He pointed to his temple. He has answered questions after each of the previous two blown saves this season, but not this time.

Ausmus seemed to be pivoting post-game Sunday.

“We’re going to have to have a discussion,” Ausmus said. “He’s not closing out games. It’s something he’s done for a decade. So I think it’s very obvious that it’s not the same Frankie.”

(Go pick up Justin Wilson, fantasy players)

After this game, [Rodriguez] did not have his head buried in his hands. He sat stone-faced at his locker, shell-shocked, before answering questions about his job security for perhaps the first time in his career. …

“I was trying to get some redemption and I guess not,” he said. “It didn’t work out. I’m in a really bad stretch and hopefully it’s behind me already. I have to find a way to put it behind me. Like I said, I’m more embarrassed than anything else. This is not what the city of Detroit expects from me.”

This isn’t just the scene of a player frustrated and upset after a poor performance, it’s perhaps a pitcher who is concerned he’s run out of magic, his career is nearing an end.

But if this is the end, or near the end, or the beginning of the end, we should take some time to appreciate what Rodriguez has been and what he’s done. He has so often defied expectations.

Rodriguez earned the moniker K-Rod because he debuted 15 years ago — 15 years ago! — back in 2002 with a mid 90s fastball and a wicked breaking ball. He was a rail-thin, 20-year-old then pitching in standard def in the World Series.

When he debuted in 2002 — striking out 28, against five walks, in 18 2/3 postseason innings that October — I was senior at Ohio State. I have since graduated, resided in four different states, held five different full-time jobs in journalism, added husband and father to my roles and purchased two homes. Think back to where you were stationed in life 2002 and all that has changed? Throughout all that, Rodriguez has continued to be an effective relief pitcher.

While Bartolo Colon is the face of longevity at the moment, while both pitchers reinvented themselves, Rodriguez’s run — while five years shy of Colon — is arguably more impressive since he never had a poor stretch. Until this season he has FIP’d more than 4.00 in a season twice and posted a ERA north of 4.00 just once (a 4.38 mark with the Brewers in 2012). He finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times. While saves have become an antiquated way of awarding value, he still did record 62 of them in 2008. He’s fourth all-time with 437 saves.

I did not anticipate in 2002 that Rodriguez would not only still be pitching in the majors, but he would enter the 2017 season as thought to be one of the better arms in a major league bullpen.

I did not believe Rodriguez’s modest frame, listed at 6-foot, 195-pound frame this season, would hold up over the years, especially considering the violence of the stuff and delivery he debuted with. But Rodriguez is further evidence that we do not know much about why certain pitchers break and others remain durable.

It’s remarkable how rarely he has suffered a serious injury and his most serious injury came not as the result of competition but a fight off the field. His 2002-14 injury history via Baseball Prospectus:

Moreover, a pitcher who loses significant velocity, as Rodriguez has, often struggles to retain his effectiveness. Rodriguez certainly did not burst on the major league scene in 2002 as an arm one thought would subtly evolve over the years into a changeup artist. Nothing about his fastball or breaking ball was subtle or suggested longevity.

But as Jeff Sullivan noted back after the 2015 season, Rodriguez tied his second best K-BB% (23.6) in 2015, at the age of 33, because of how he had evolved. He had gone from a fastball-slider pitcher, to a fastball-changeup arm.

In 2008, Rodriguez threw 51% fastballs, 32% breaking balls and 17% changeups. By 2015, he was throwing 45% fastballs, 12% breaking balls and 43% changeups. Despite fastball velocity that ticked below 90 mph for the first time in 2015 (89.6 mph), and is resting at a carer-low 88.2 mph early this season, the Rodriguez changeup was one of the best in the game. In 2015, ESPN’s Mark Simon noted the Rodriguez’s changeup was the best changeup in baseball.

But if we look at it on a per-100-pitches basis, Rodriguez’s changeup moves to the top of the board of any pitch. In fact, among those pitchers who threw at least 40 innings and threw a pitch at least 10 percent of the time, no pitcher has a higher run value per 100 pitches than Rodriguez’s 5.07 on his changeup.

It has helped him continue to post double-digit swinging strike rates, having posted 15 in 16 seasons.

It was a remarkable if unlikely evolution.

But it looks like this remarkable run is nearing an end. Pick a statistic, a measurement, and it’s trending in the wrong direction for Rodriguez.

Note his out-of-zone swing rate …

The zone contact rate against K-Rod …

And the trend of his K/9 abilities compared to the league average …

Maybe Rodriguez will surprise us again, rebound from this awful start, and find another way to reinvent himself. More likely his days as an above-average reliever are concluded and we were seeing signs of that before the season began. But if this is the end, it was a heckuva run.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Since the Tigers are infatuated with signing past-their-prime closers (hello, Joe Nathan), I checked the stats for 2017 saves, ages 35 and up. Four of the first six names — Rodney, Rodriguez, Benoit and Grilli — have been there, done that. I guess that means Al Avila will throw stupid money at either Santiago Casilla, Ryan Madson or Koji Uehara for 2018.

baseball bettormember
5 years ago
Reply to  maumannts

The Tigers had the young/bad version of Grilli (not a closer either), that was before he actually became decent/

5 years ago
Reply to  maumannts

Maybe they could gin up a trade with LAA for Bud Norris.