Among all the transaction/acquisition vehicles available to teams — trades, waiver claims, free agency, etc. — the most unlikely to benefit a major-league roster in a forthcoming season is the minor-league free-agent signing.
Esteemed FanGraphs managing editor Carson Cistulli found that only 1% of minor-league free agents go on to produce at least 0.5 WAR or greater in the following season. They are scratch-off lottery tickets that are almost always misses. So when one hits, it’s worth examining.
Now, it seems one has!
Richard Rodriguez has already been worth 0.5 WAR to date for the Pirates, making him one of the rarest of finds. The right-handed pitcher, signed to a minor-league contract on Dec. 7, has become the Pirates’ most dominant relief pitcher early this season and one of the most dominant relief arms in all of major-league baseball, albeit in a small sample. Over the span of 11.1 innings, he’s essentially been Josh Hader’s equivalent. He’s struck out 21 of 44 batters he’s faced and walked just one. That’s a 47.7-point K-BB%, folks.
If you’ve consumed every entry at FanGraphs dot com, you’ve actually read about Rodriguez in these pages. Before Chris Mitchell departed the site for a mysterious “opportunity in the industry,” he left us the gift of pre-2018 KATOH, including KATOH projections for minor-league free agents last November. He ranked Rodriguez as the No. 4 minor-league free agent. Perhaps the Pirates were reading.
Rodriguez was lights out for Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate this year, recording a 2.42 ERA and 28% strikeout rate out of the bullpen. He got lit up in his five big-league appearances, however, and was outrighted to the minors midway through his September call-up. At 27, Rodriguez is rather old for a prospect, but he was an excellent Triple-A pitcher, and pitching in the majors isn’t that much different than pitching in Triple-A.
Rodriguez has a legit fastball. While it has an MLB-average velocity of 93 mph, it has above-average spin at 2,352 rpms. (The MLB average is around 2,200.)
The pitch ranks fifth in whiff rate (40.6%) amongst relievers who have thrown at least 50 four-seam fastballs to date, and it has both above-average vertical (9.28 inches) and horizontal (-6.8 inches) movement.
What’s also interesting about Rodriguez is where and when he is attacking hitters.
But Rodriguez’s overall zone rate of 47.7% is just above league average (43.4%). This means, once he gets ahead, he’s staying out of the zone.
Consider Rodriguez’s first-pitch strike location and pitch type this season
Then consider Rodriguez’s approach when he’s ahead:
Rodriguez is essentially following one of the oldest axioms in pitching philosophy: get ahead of the hitter and do so with your fastball. But in this day and age, when more pitchers are pitching backward, throwing fewer fastballs and fewer pitches in the zone, Rodriguez is a throwback. Perhaps Rodriguez is so aware of his unlikely position on a major-league roster that he’s determined not to mess around and not to get cute early in counts. He’s going to get ahead with his best pitch and take his chances.
On Sunday in Milwaukee, Rodriguez faced seven Brewers over two innings, striking out six and allowing one single. He began all seven Brewers with first-pitch fastballs and then he went in search of swing-and-miss outside the zone.
Here’s Rodriguez getting ahead with a fastball against Eric Sogard in the eighth inning:
Later in the at-bat, he generates a swing and miss above the zone with his four-seamer for the strikeout:
He started the following batter, Brett Phillips, with a fastball:
After missing a couple times out of the zone and a foul ball, Rodriguez gets another strikeout by elevating his fastball:
To end the inning, Rodriguez again got ahead and finished off Jett Bandy with a 58-foot slider:
The following heat maps demonstrate Rodriguez’s fastball tactics. In 0-0 counts, he pounds hitters in the zone:
And when he’s ahead and selects his fastball he elevates:
Per Statcast data, when ahead, Rodriguez’s fastball crosses the plate at 3.34 feet on average, which is the 19th-most elevated fastball in the sport.
It remains to be seen if this approach will continue to work. Whether or not it does, Rodriguez has already beaten the odds, becoming one of the best minor-league free agents of the season. He’s already a winning lottery ticket. If this performance continues, Rodriguez can expect to take on a greater role in the bullpen of the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates. If he can do that, he’ll become one of the better stories of 2018.