Red Sox Take a Chance on Joely Rodríguez With Incentive-Laden Deal

Joely Rodríguez
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If the BABIP gods change their minds, the Red Sox are the first in line. Last week, they inked left-handed reliever Joely Rodríguez, formerly of the Mets, to an incentive-laden, one-year contract with a team option for 2024. If he pitches like his peripheral numbers indicate he can, the signing should prove fruitful for Boston.

Rodríguez will make a base salary of $1.5 million in 2023, with a chance to earn an additional $2.25 million in incentives. He’ll receive a $50,000 bonus if he pitches in 30 games and an extra $50,000 each for reaching the 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-game plateaus. On top of that, he’ll earn a bigger bonus the longer he remains on the active roster — an extra $500,000 each for logging 30, 60, 90, and 120 days.

Barring a significant injury or complete meltdown, Rodríguez should easily reach 120 days of service time in 2023. In other words, that $2 million bonus is practically money in his pocket. On the other hand, the games-pitched incentive is less of a guarantee. Rodríguez pitched 50-plus games in both of the past two seasons but has yet to cross the 60-game threshold in his MLB career. He has gotten close, however, and 2023 could be the year it finally happens. With the Red Sox, not only will he find himself a little higher up on the bullpen depth chart, but there will also be more relief opportunities to go around, as Boston’s starting rotation is unlikely to pitch quite as deep into games as New York’s. All that to say, he can reasonably expect to earn the $50,000 bonus for pitching 30, 40, and 50 games, and he might pocket another $50,000 for reaching the 60-game plateau; 70 games still seems a little out of reach.

After the deal’s first year, the Red Sox have a team option for $4.25 million (with another $250,000 in games-pitched incentives). If they choose not to exercise the option, Rodríguez receives a $500,000 buyout. In short, the deal is for a minimum of one year and $2 million, with a maximum potential of two years and $8.25 million.

A deal full of incentives and options makes sense for a pitcher like Rodríguez. For one thing, he comes with minor injury concerns after a shoulder problem kept him off the Mets’ postseason roster. No further details about the injury were made available to the public, so it’s presumably not too serious. Even so, the Red Sox are hedging their bets. Beyond any injury concerns, there’s also the fact that Rodríguez is something of an unproven entity. He’s been around for quite a while now, but at 31 years old, he has yet to pitch a conventionally “good” big league season:

Joely Rodríguez’s Career
Season Team Record SV G IP ERA
2016 PHI 0-0 0 12 9.2 2.79
2017 PHI 1-2 0 26 27.0 6.33
2020 TEX 0-0 0 12 12.2 2.13
2021 TEX/NYY 2-3 1 52 46.1 4.66
2022 NYM 2-4 0 55 50.1 4.47

Rodríguez spent his first three MLB seasons bouncing back and forth between the majors and the minors. He then signed with the Chunichi Dragons and played for a year and a half in Japan. He performed well enough in NPB to earn a guaranteed contract from the Rangers in December 2019, and he returned stateside just in time for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Finally, in 2021, Rodríguez got his chance at a full major league season, only to fall victim to an elevated .355 batting average on balls in play. His BABIP was 65 ticks higher than the league average, and it was the sixth-highest figure among relievers with at least 40 IP. He finished the season with a 4.66 ERA, despite his 3.43 FIP. His BABIP came down to earth in 2022, but a new problem sprung up in its place: bequeathed runners. Of the 28 runs attributed to Rodríguez’s line, 14 crossed the plate after he had already left the game. Relievers inherited 35 baserunners from him (17 in scoring position) and allowed 40% of them to score. For context, the average reliever allowed only 32% of inherited runners to score in 2022. Poor Rodríguez was left looking at a ghastly earned run average for the second straight year; his 4.47 ERA was more than a full run higher than his FIP and xFIP.

Thus, the stats on the back of Rodríguez’s baseball card over the past two seasons — a 4–7 record, a 4.56 ERA, and two blown saves in three chances — don’t paint him in the best light. The underlying data, however, tell us he’s a much better pitcher than the traditional stats suggest. Since 2021, Rodríguez has a 3.33 FIP, which places him among the top 30% of relievers (min. 50 IP). His 3.44 xFIP positions him among the top 20%. With those numbers in mind, the Red Sox are betting Rodríguez has more success keeping runs off the board in 2023.

The Red Sox entered the offseason in desperate need of relief pitching after finishing with the second-lowest bullpen WAR in the American League. Their second-half ERA was the worst in baseball and nearly a run higher than that of the next-worst AL team. Matt Strahm, their best left-handed reliever, is now a free agent. The only southpaw relievers on the 40-man roster are Josh Taylor, who missed the entire 2022 season with injury, and Darwinzon Hernandez, who spent most of the 2022 season in Triple-A. Rodríguez won’t be enough to turn the bullpen from a weakness into a strength, but he is a sorely needed reinforcement.

The left-hander’s biggest asset is his ability to limit home runs. That should come in handy for the Red Sox, whose pitching staff finished last season with the second-highest home run rate in the AL. Rodríguez has allowed only seven long balls over the past two years, good for 0.65 HR/9 in 107 appearances. His secret is simple but effective: he keeps the ball on the ground and prevents hard contact. His fly ball rate and hard-hit rate compare quite favorably to the league-average figures:

Fly Ball Data (2021-2022)
FB% Hard% on FB
Joely Rodríguez 23.6% 27%
League Average 36.8% 35.7%

Rodríguez’s fly ball rate over the past two years is one of the lowest in baseball. What’s more, of the occasional fly balls he does allow, only a modest percentage have been classified as hard hit (per Sports Info Solutions). All in all, he has allowed only 17 hard-hit fly balls in the past two seasons, which accounts for just 6.25% of balls put in play against him. The average pitcher allows hard-hit fly balls more than twice as often.

This skill should play particularly well at Fenway Park. Due to the stadium’s unique dimensions, it’s already one of the harder ballparks for left-handed batters to go deep. It will be all the more difficult for them next season when the Red Sox have Rodríguez on the mound; he’s allowed just three hard-hit fly balls to lefties since the start of the 2021 season. As for righties, he should be able to keep them in the park as well. Right-handed batters have managed to hit a few more fly balls against him, but not with much success, and the majority of the time, those fly balls have gone to the opposite field:

Batted Ball Direction on Fly Balls (RHH)
Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Joely Rodríguez 12.5% 37.5% 50%
Average Lefty Reliever 24.9% 37.3% 37.9%

Hitting oppo to right field is the last thing you want to do at Fenway Park. Of the 116 home runs righties hit in Boston last season, 82 were pulled and another 25 were hit to center; only nine went over the wall in right. Unsurprisingly, Dan Szymborski’s newly released ZiPS projections are bullish on Rodriguez and his ability to keep the ball in the yard next season; ZiPS projects him to give up just three home runs in 2023, a rate of 0.6 per nine.

All things considered, this is a low-risk, high-reward signing for Boston. If Rodríguez stumbles, it’s only a one-year commitment for a couple million bucks. If he lives up to the potential he’s flashed the past seasons, it’s a steal. Just look at what relief pitchers have made on the open market thus far. Robert Suarez, another 31-year-old reliever, signed a five-year, $46 million pact with the Padres. He isn’t an ideal comp for Rodríguez, given that he has better stuff and works in higher-leverage situations. Still, it’s a close enough comparison to demonstrate why the Rodríguez contract could be a real bargain for Boston:

Comparing Robert Suarez and Joely Rodríguez
Robert Suarez 45 47.2 11.52 3.97 0.76 0.248 2.27 3.27 3.22 3.25
Joely Rodríguez 55 50.1 10.19 4.65 0.54 0.302 4.47 3.62 3.23 3.46

By taking a chance on Rodríguez, Chaim Bloom and the Red Sox have crossed one small need off the offseason list.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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1 year ago

Good writeup. Thanks. Strange that the Mets don’t seem to have been interested, given they can use at least four guys like Joely in an otherwise almost empty pen—one from the left, and three from the right, say, in addition to another three much better arms to set up Diaz.

Still, I suppose it might be attributable to being among the worst FO’s in baseball when it comes to evaluating pitching. They haven’t been active in adding relievers to an empty pen, preferring thus far to add guys to serve as the depth’s depth, assuming they ever decide to bring the former on board.

They might want to bring Minaya back to consult for a bit, if MLB will let him. Among his odd skill set was the ability to recognize useful arms other teams weren’t seeing.

Last edited 1 year ago by sogoodlooking
1 year ago
Reply to  sogoodlooking

Joely continues to have a very problematic walk rate, which is partly why he wasn’t trusted in many higher leverage situations. A mere 26% K rate accompanied by a 12% walk rate isn’t good at all for a reliever. Walking 11% of lefty hitters he faces is even worse for him despite his 30% k rate against them, given that he’s primarily used in situations that involve getting at least 1 dangerous lefty out. His K rate plummeted to 21% vs righties, with the BB% remaining the same, making him uninspiring despite the soft contact. He isn’t a safe lefty with the 3 batter rule.

The fact that Joely is getting paid this little despite being a lefty reflects the market for his skills and his flaws. Anyone can look at savant and see that he limits hard contact–that doesn’t make anyone smart. Nobody else in MLB seemed to care. This article spent a lot of time focusing on the direction of his fly balls, but not a single word about his glaring walk problem.

This is still a good signing at this price point for Boston, but a serious contending team needs an actually good lefty like Andrew Chafin.

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  sogoodlooking

Are they amongst the worst at evaluating pitching though? The put together a decent bullpen last year hitting big on Ottavino and we’re just a month into free agency and almost all the relievers are still sitting out there and they’ll add a few guys I’m sure. Nothing wrong with adding depth guys with minor league options. I’m a big Hefner fan and they just hired one of the top driveline guys to help with pitching development.

Jeff in Jerseymember
1 year ago
Reply to  David Klein

The Mets would stay away from Joely for long stretches. I don’t think that was Buck ignoring data; it was that Joely seriously looked done at times. I’m no scout but the whole year the Mets beat writers were wondering why Joely was the lefty instead of Chafin. I get that the underlying numbers are decent, but he wasn’t impressive in the eye test, and his team didn’t trust him (and the team won 101 games).