Two Eras of Francisco Rodriguez

Doug Melvin, a few days ago:

Melvin wouldn’t comment on the state of possible talks with the Phillies, but acknowledged the lines of communication have remained open with “K-Rod.”

“I don’t know if it’s active, but we still have conversations,” Melvin said. “Mark deals more with that. (Agent) Scott (Boras) keeps calling Mark.”

You know how this goes. Sometimes, Boras has problems finding the right level of demand among 30 baseball front offices. But he’s skilled enough to know that he’s always got more options, as, above 30 baseball front offices, are 30 baseball owners or ownership groups. Said executives are easier to persuade, as they’re in charge of the money, and they tend to know a little less about roster management. So, long story short, Boras has gotten the Brewers to make another commitment to Francisco Rodriguez, this one for at least two years and $13 million. It happened above the general manager’s head, but it’s not a nightmare; Rodriguez remains a useful pitcher, and the Brewers remain on the positive side of the be-a-seller threshold. This is an example of ownership caving, but it’s not a godawful fit.

As is often the case, what I find interesting here is less about the contract, and more about the player. The contract is fine. Maybe a little heavy, I don’t know. But Rodriguez himself has had a particularly fascinating career. So this is a good opportunity to call attention to the transition he’s largely been able to pull off. Rodriguez is still just 33 years old, yet he debuted when he was 20, and his career has had two distinct stages. Rodriguez, at least as a player, has evolved.

You remember what Rodriguez used to be about. As a rookie, and as an Angels closer, Rodriguez was armed with a mid-90s heater and a truly devastating breaking ball. In 2005, he threw the breaking ball just about half the time, and that wasn’t wildly out of character. There were two weapons, and everyone knew about the secondary pitch, but no one could do anything with it, and Rodriguez was free to dance around after every third out. Then 2008 came, and Rodriguez lost a little velocity.

It hasn’t returned. And as the velocity faded, Rodriguez changed his approach. He’s kept throwing about the same rate of fastballs as ever. But he’s tweaked the breaking ball, and he’s also leaned less heavily on the breaking ball. A changeup appeared almost out of nowhere, and in 2008, he threw it once for every six pitches. Last year he threw it nearly once for every three pitches. Often, fastball/slider relievers burn hot and burn out. The changeup has given Rodriguez a second wind.

Let’s draw a line between 2008 and 2009. It’s a little bit arbitrary, but that also captures when Rodriguez left the Angels and went to the Mets. As an Angel, for seven years, Rodriguez ranked in the top three percent in baseball in breaking-ball rate. Now, there are 157 pitchers who threw at least 200 innings between 2002 – 2008, and at least 200 innings between 2009 – 2014. Out of that group, Rodriguez has seen the biggest decrease in breaking-ball rate. He’s also seen the biggest corresponding increase in offspeed rate. And his offspeed rate has only gotten higher.

In 2005, Rodriguez’s breaking-ball rate ranked in the 99th percentile. In 2014, Rodriguez’s offspeed rate ranked in the 96th percentile. Rodriguez doesn’t just love his changeup against lefties — he’s also used it increasingly often against righties, reflecting increasing confidence. And also reflecting diminished confidence in the breaker. Rodriguez has very much become a fastball/changeup pitcher, and you can see what it’s done to his numbers.

Following, two tables of platoon splits. In the first, Rodriguez against righties and lefties between 2002 -2008. In the second, Rodriguez against righties and lefties between 2009 – 2014. This is covering an awful lot of years.

2002 – 2008 vs. RHB vs. LHB Difference
wOBA 0.238 0.280 -0.042
K% 34.9% 29.8% 5.1%
BB% 9.1% 10.5% -1.4%
K-BB% 25.8% 19.3% 6.5%
FIP 2.36 3.35 -0.99
xFIP 2.87 3.34 -0.47

=====

2009 – 2014 vs. RHB vs. LHB Difference
wOBA 0.310 0.275 0.035
K% 24.8% 27.9% -3.1%
BB% 10.8% 5.5% 5.3%
K-BB% 14.0% 22.4% -8.4%
FIP 3.98 3.20 0.78
xFIP 3.90 2.92 0.98

The first table looks like what you’d expect for a dominant right-handed reliever with an amazing breaking ball. More strikeouts of righties. A lower wOBA against righties. Yet still fine numbers against lefties, as the breaking ball worked as a two-sided weapon.

The second table features a different pitcher. You’d think the pitcher is a southpaw, if it weren’t for all the other words in this post. Rodriguez has been better against lefties. He’s struck them out more, and walked them plenty less. With a strong changeup instead of a strong breaking ball, Rodriguez has effectively reversed his platoon, and while he’s also just worse as a pitcher than he used to be, he’s figured out a way to survive into his mid-30s, which few would’ve expected when he first broke in. Rodriguez has changed, very significantly, and he’s become more vulnerable against the very hitters he used to annihilate. But, lefties? Rodriguez isn’t fun for any lefties. The changeup is that good.

Of course, as Rodriguez’s age climbs, he has less and less of a margin of error. His fastball is ever slower, and he’s more and more prone to aches and pains that might cause him to alter his mechanics. The last three years, among relievers with at least 150 innings, Rodriguez owns the very highest HR/FB rate. Last season alone he surrendered 14 dingers. But before you make too much of that, between 2009 – 2011, among relievers with at least 150 innings, Rodriguez’s HR/FB rate ranked in the lowest fourth. Dingers are a problem, unless they aren’t, and it’s possible they aren’t, and we can never really know until after the fact. It’s a potential concern, and it’s just as much a potential nothing.

There can’t be too many more chapters in Francisco Rodriguez’s on-field career. He is declining, and he did just remain a free agent all the way into camp. He’s winding down, and it’s possible he won’t survive the next year as the Brewers’ full-time closer. Yet already, Rodriguez has pulled something off that not too many others have managed. As a younger pitcher, Rodriguez owned one of the best individual pitches in baseball. As he’s gotten older, he’s relied on a very different strength, that’s only gotten stronger. The hardest adjustment for a pitcher to make is to remain successful as you transition from power to finesse. Count this as one way in which Francisco Rodriguez could be a role model.

We hoped you liked reading Two Eras of Francisco Rodriguez by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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buddyglass
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buddyglass

Still waiting on the FANS to project Rodriguez, Jonathan Broxton, LaTroy Hawkins, Luke Gregerson and Rafael Soriano. And Yasmany Tomas while you’re at it. 🙂