There is a baseball season underway, and so of course, the Detroit Tigers have seen shaky performances from a closer. Francisco Rodriguez looked like a solid value pickup by Al Avila this offseason, but so far it's been a bit of a rocky road. His last three outings have gone better, but the questions remain. Were Rodriguez' early season struggles just a rough patch, or potentially the sign of another closer acquired too close to their sell-by date?
On the surface, there are reasons to think his issues are somewhat flukey. In his outing against the Royals on April 20, just before going on family emergency leave, Rodriguez hung a pair of pitches in short order to Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez and paid for them with back-to-back solo shots. That's not the kind of thing that tends to happen very often. Meanwhile Rodriguez' strikeouts and walks are far from his career averages at the moment. These statistics tend to find their level as larger samples produce regression toward a player's norms.
On the other hand, it's rather easy to make the argument that Rodriguez is fortunate to have only blown one lead so far. What's more, his batting average on balls in play currently stands at an unsustainable .227. Considering the amount of hitters putting the ball in play against him in the early going, that's especially fortunate. He's actually had some good luck, and good defense, backing him so far.
After his near blown start against the Royals, Rodriguez pinned the source of his problems on failing to throw first pitch strikes. With a fastball sitting just shy of 90 mph, and a changeup-heavy approach that relies on using hitters' aggressiveness against them, Rodriguez has to get ahead of a high percentage of hitters to remain successful. To do that, and not get hurt in the process, Rodriguez depends on superb location. When he doesn't have it, he doesn't have much.
That, friends, is an Italian restaurant's worth of meatballs. So far this season, Rodriguez has thrown few strikes that weren't in the heart of the zone. On the one hand, Rodriguez needs to get ahead of hitters. He has to aggressively throw strikes in the first pitch of an at-bat, and that may lead to a higher percentage of grooved pitches than is preferable. But no pitcher can survive long filling up the center of the strikezone like that. Even with dominant stuff, hitters are going to tee off on those pitches eventually.
For a pitcher who depends almost entirely on location and deception, that many grooved pitches spells disaster. Poor location is definitely the major factor in Rodriguez' rocky beginning with the Tigers. How quickly he can sort those issues out is the open question.
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A look at Rodriguez pitch data shows no real smoking guns when compared to last season. Both his four-seam fastball and sinker are down about a mile per hour as compared to last season's model, but this early in the year that's pretty normal, particularly considering that Rodriguez got a bit of a late start in spring training. They're mediocre, but basically the same set Rodriguez had in his toolkit last season.
Things are a little more interesting with the changeup, which has become Rodriguez' primary strikeout pitch in recent years. He's actually spun the changeup about 200 rpms faster than last season, and as a result, it's dropping an inch and a half less on average. Perhaps that could partly explain the lack of whiffs against it, though with a pitcher who relies on feel as much as Rodriguez, he may just be varying the fade on the pitch and the size of the sample just isn't large enough to balance it out yet.
If there's a bright side to this investigation, it's that his pitches look largely unchanged. Physically he seems to be the same guy who was very good for the Milwaukee Brewers last year. If he was giving up this kind of hard contact with better location, or showing major differences in his actual pitches, it would be a lot more concerning. Considering his late start to camp, and the violence of his delivery, it's not unreasonable to think that Rodriguez may still simply be working out some kinks.
One final note suggests that Rodriguez may still be fine-tuning his delivery to a degree. For him to be successful, he has to deliver both his fastball and changeup from the same release point. Doing so is fundamental to his approach. If hitters can read the difference between his fastball and changeup, he's going to get hit harder, and isn't going to get as many whiffs. Rodriguez relies on that deception to an even higher degree than your average pitcher.
There's a bit of evidence in the chart that Rodriguez is throwing his fastball from a slightly lower release point than the changeup so far. The difference isn't extreme, but even a few inches can separate a pair of pitches from being indistinguishable from one another, to being obvious to hitters. If Rodriguez can make a slight adjustment there, it could make both pitches just that little bit better. Inconsistent release points may also explain some of his difficulty in locating the fastball around the edges of the strikezone thus far.
Since his return from family emergency leave on April 27, Rodriguez has looked much sharper. Of the eight batters he's faced in 2 1/3 innings, four have gone down swinging, with just one hit and no walks. He's been much more successful getting ahead of hitters, and as a result, is having an easier time putting them away. Tigers' fans may take that as a sign that Rodriguez is starting to find his groove, but he's still got a long way to go to turn around the crooked 5.19 ERA he's currently sporting.
The profile of a typical Tigers' pitcher tends to be big, hard-throwing guys who depend on their slider to put hitters away. Francisco Rodriguez is clearly a very different sort of cat. The mediocre velocity of his fastball, coupled with the liberal use of a changeup as his out pitch, make him something of an oddity. He's also a guy with a lot of mileage on his arm. These are the kinds of things that can make fans nervous.
However, there may be an advantage in having a closer whose approach varies so drastically from the norm. Rodriguez gives a completely unique look to hitters, and is noted for his ability to read and set them up. That experience has also shown up in his ability to adapt successfully as his velocity declines. If he's able to sharpen his delivery, he should find the accuracy and deception he had last season with the Milwaukee Brewers. Late inning leads for the Detroit Tigers will look all the safer for it.