Braves Add Richard Rodríguez, Bolster ‘Pen for Playoff Push and Beyond

If you’ve been able to keep pace with our trade deadline articles, you’ve probably noticed a lot of articles about the Braves. They’ve brought in an entirely new outfield just today: Jorge Soler from the Royals and Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall from Cleveland and Miami, respectively. That’s after acquiring Joc Pederson a few weeks ago when they lost Ronald Acuña Jr. to injury. It’s a flurry of moves for a team in a precarious playoff position: below .500 and with playoff odds under 10%. At the same time, Atlanta is only four games back of the Mets in the NL East.

With both the stretch run and a potential postseason stay in mind, the Braves decided to keep churning, acquiring reliever Richard Rodríguez from the Pirates for a pair of prospects: right-handers Bryse Wilson and Ricky DeVito. Rodríguez is no playoffs-or-bust rental, though; he has the most team control left of any of the players Atlanta added at the deadline, as he won’t reach free agency until after the 2023 season.

Rodríguez, 31, will go from being the Pirates’ closer to a high-leverage role with the Braves, perhaps even getting some save opportunities if manager Brian Snitker wants to platoon the righty with primary closer Will Smith, a lefty. Rodríguez’s 2.82 ERA and 2.58 FIP are excellent, but there are some red flags in his profile. His strikeout rate has dropped precipitously, going from 36.6% in 2020 to 22.8 this year — from the 96th percentile to the 40th. He’s also sporting an unsustainably low HR/FB rate of 3.3%.

Dig into his pitch usage and you’ll understand why that’s the case. Rodríguez has always depended on his fastball; he threw it 72.4% of the time last year and 82% of the time in 2019. But this year he’s taken its usage up to a career-high 87%. It sits at 93 mph with an elite spin rate, but it doesn’t get many swings and misses, with a whiff rate of just 19.8%. What it does get is a lot of weak fly balls and pop-ups; Rodríguez throws it high in the zone, and it has tons of arm-side ride on it, which helps him keep it off hitter’s barrels and keeps balls in the yard. In fact, a lot of his contact has stayed in the infield; his 16.4% popup rate is three times higher than last year’s mark.

When he’s not throwing his fastball, Rodríguez will use a low-80s slider that has a lot of vertical bite to it. It acts more like a curveball and mirrors his fastball quite well.

The key to the dip in strikeout rate has to do with that slider. As you saw, Rodríguez is a two-pitch reliever: fastball and slider. The usage of both has risen and fallen over the last four years; the slider went from a 34.2% rate in 2017 to just 14.5% two years later. But in 2020, he threw that pitch 27.6% of the time, and it produced a .106 wOBA and a ridiculous 63.6% whiff rate. Despite that, he’s gone back to a fastball-heavy setting, with the slider now at a career-low 13% usage rate. If the Braves are looking to unlock the strikeout potential that Rodríguez showed last season, getting him to go back to that pitch more often seems like a good first step. And even if not, they’ll have two more seasons together to work on it.

The prospect return for Pittsburgh doesn’t have the wow factor that some of the deadline’s other trades do, as neither Wilson nor Devito are top-100 players. That’s not to say they aren’t intriguing. Wilson is now 23 and drifting into former top prospect territory after a few poor albeit small cups of coffee in the big leagues. He came in at No. 72 on our 2019 Top 100 list but dropped to 100th last season and fell off entirely this spring. The problem is that of his bevy of pitches — fastball, sinker, changeup, slider and curveball — he doesn’t have a single particularly strong offering; only his changeup holds an xwOBA under .340 in his eight starts this season. He also hasn’t been able to translate the elite command that he showed in the upper minors into the big leagues. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen wrote in Wilson’s scouting report from March.

As his secondary stuff has looked largely unimpactful against big league hitters, Wilson’s saving grace will likely be his command. He’ll work his low-90s sinker at the knees, then run his four-seamer up the ladder to finish hitters, and Wilson has great command of his two-plane, upper-70s curveball.

Still, I’d imagine the Pirates will give Wilson plenty of opportunities to win a rotation spot, as the current group is neither deep nor strong.

DeVito is a 2019 eighth-round pick out of Seton Hall with a 2.66 ERA and 22% K-BB% in high-A, albeit as a soon-to-be 23-year-old. He came into the season ranked 24th on our Braves preseason list with a 40 FV; per Eric, “if DeVito’s pitch quality improves a little bit, he has a chance to be a three-pitch reliever.” (For what it’s worth, he’s been a starter this season.) He enters the Pirates’ deeper prospect list at No. 39.

All in all, the Braves should be thrilled to have a reliever of Rodríguez’s caliber who will be around not only for this year’s playoff push but also the next two. They had to give up some starting pitching depth in Wilson to make that happen, but with the NL East looking winnable, it feels like a worthy gamble.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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1 year ago

Hopefully Rodriguez is a solid 8th inning guy.