And just like that, the Detroit Tigers traded for Francisco Rodriguez ("K-Rod" is his baptismal name), and got a proven closer lined up for 2016. This is the first time the Tigers have had a proven closer for their bullpen since the last time they acquired a proven closer for their bullpen. Except, it's different this time, isn't it? Isn't it? Picking up K-Rod signals a change from previous seasons, a reason for hope, doesn't it? Doesn't it?
Take your pick:
Closer 1: 2.21 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 0.860 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 38 saves, 95% save rate
Closer 2: 1.39 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 0.897 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 43 saves, 93% save rate
Closer 3: 2.70 ERA, 1.06 FIP, 0.870 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 17 saves, 89% save rate
Closer 4: 2.33 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.130 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 25 saves, 86% save rate
Closer 5: 3.29 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 1.244 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 7 saves, 70% save rate
The first closer is K-Rod in 2015. Those are some very pretty numbers. I would definitely buy those numbers a drink and ask for a phone number at the end of the night. But are those numbers predictive of what 2016 will be like? Those are National League numbers, after all -- how will his stuff play in the Land of the Designated Hitter?
The second closer is Joe Nathan in 2013, the year before the Tigers spent big money to acquire him. Then he got "dead" arm in 2014 and his UCL took a leave of absence in 2015.
The third closer is Joakim Soria in the first half of 2014, right before the Tigers traded for him at the July deadline. He got injured, struggled, and then had a so-so 2015 before the Tigers traded him at the deadline.
The fourth closer is Jose Valverde the year before the Tigers got him, and although it took him a little longer to fall apart, fall apart he did. Maybe that FIP was a clue.
The fifth closer is Willie Hernandez in 1983, the year before he improved those numbers to 1.92 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 0.941 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 32 saves, and a 97% save rate on his way to winning both the Cy Young and MVP Awards. I included him here to prove one point: we know nothing about closers.
If you're concerned about K-Rod turning 34 in January and repeating the Joe Nathan aging-like-a-cheap-wine performance, perhaps it will help to remember that Nathan was about to turn 39 when he came to Detroit. Yeah, K-Rod is getting older, but that's still a five year difference.
As K-Rod ages, he appears to be adjusting. His average fastball velocity has dropped from 92.2 in 2013 to 90.5 in 2015, but then again, that was never his best pitch in that span. Opponents hit .337 against his fastball in 2013, so he cut his usage in half in 2014 and they only hit .212 against it. (Spoiler: he only threw the fastball 21% of the time in 2015, and batters hit .371 against that pitch, so maybe he'll rely on it even less in 2016.)
His changeup was his best secondary pitch in 2014. He used it 29% of the time, and hitters only averaged .155 against it, so he doubled down in 2015 and threw the pitch 43% of the time, resulting in an opponent batting average of .097 against it.
The rest of the data is presented below:
That changeup appears to have been a real weapon for K-Rod in 2015, as the pitch result data shows:
Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus noticed the same thing.
#Tigers manager Brad Ausmus on new closer K-Rod not throwing as hard as he used to: pic.twitter.com/ALM0Dzg2rW— Matthew B. Mowery (@matthewbmowery) November 18, 2015
So what kind of a pitcher will K-Rod be for the Tigers in 2016? I feel completely confident in saying that his numbers in 2016 will improve, decline, or stay pretty much the same. Don't forget the lesson of Joe Nathan, cross-referenced with the lesson of Willie Hernandez. K-Rod's track record is reason enough for optimism, but I'll keep my own optimism carefully guarded in a fire-proof box, next to the vintage whisky.
But considering that the Tigers gave up less to get him and will pay less to keep him than, oh say, Craig Kimbrel, I'd say Al Avila wins this round in the great Dombrowski v Avila 2016 Cage Match.