Before he even put on a Detroit Tigers jersey, expectations went through the roof for righthander Bruce Rondon. His ability to hurl the ball at 100 miles per hour and higher was a ray of hope in an otherwise depressing bullpen situation. Rondon made his debut in 2013 and pitched well, but saw that success quickly dissipate.
In 2014, Rondon did not even make it to Opening Day before losing the whole season to Tommy John surgery. He made his way back in 2015 but had very mediocre numbers before being sent home early because of attitude problems. What once was excitement and optimism soon turned to great disappointment.
However, three seasons — including one missed to injury — are not enough to judge a player’s trajectory, and Rondon responded in a big way in 2016. He had his most encouraging season yet and showed that he deserves to be a main cog in the Tigers bullpen. With questions surrounding Francisco Rodriguez’s future in Detroit, Rondon’s time may be quickly approaching. His performance this season proved that he is ready.
The 2016 season was a quintessential bounce-back year for Rondon, and he was as good or better in many key areas when compared to his rookie year. He appeared in 37 games and pitched 36 1⁄3 innings, both career bests. He owned the second-lowest ERA among Tigers’ relievers with at least 10 innings pitched, and he boasted the best WHIP and strikeout rate among that group. Rondon did lose some velocity with his four-seam fastball, dropping from 100.35 miles per hour to 97.98 mph. However, this change was accompanied by a rise in his strike percentage.
Additionally, Rondon made some wise decisions with his pitch selection. In 2013, he threw his four-seamer 66 percent of the time, with his slider and change-up coming in at 22 and 11 percent, respectively. In 2016, these percentages changed to 60, 37, and three. Opponents hit .284 against the four-seamer and .333 against the change, while only .133 against the slider in 2013. Rondon threw his four-seamer and change-up less frequently last season and increased his slider usage, and the results were in his favor, as his four-seam fastball recorded a .211 average against and his slider sat at just .118.
Despite his strong numbers, not everything was perfect for Rondon last season. While he held opponents to a .178 batting average, this is likely not sustainable. In both 2013 and 2015, this figure sat around .250 and his BABIP was at .329 both seasons. In 2016, his BABIP was just .228, easily the lowest in the Tigers bullpen and nowhere near his career mark. To say that he was a little fortunate would be an understatement.
Rondon also featured a career low in soft contact percentage and a career high in hard hit percentage. His BABIP was probably helped by an inflated fly ball rate, but this also led to a troubling 1.24 home runs allowed per nine innings. To have continued success, he will need to bring down this level of solid contact and find a way to reduce the number of home runs allowed.
|8/24 - 10/2||16.2||1.08||2.85||0.9||11.34||3.78||0.54|
Still, during the last month and change, Rondon was had to beat. He owned a 1.08 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and only gave up one homer in 16 2/3 innings. He did struggle a bit with walks, which made his FIP a bit higher than his ERA, but he was striking out over 11.3 batters per nine innings. These are the numbers of an elite reliever, and Rondon definitely looked the part down the stretch.
But perhaps the biggest argument for increasing Rondon’s usage in key situations can be found in his win probability numbers. By both WPA and RE24, he was a huge asset to the team in 2016. During the second half of the season, he ranked second in WPA and third in RE24 in the Tigers bullpen and substantially eclipsed his numbers from the previous seasons. Down the stretch these figures sat at 0.88 WPA and 6.58 RE24.
Rondon’s numbers were very competitive, but he did not always see the most competitive action. His average leverage of 1.21 when entering the game was just sixth on the team, and even when he was pitching phenomenally toward the end of the season his leverage index only sat at 1.15. Whether it be the ninth inning or a tricky spot earlier on, Rondon needs to be used in bigger situations. If given the chance, he just might become the next great relief ace.