It took just nine innings into the season for the inevitable to happen -- or so it seemed. Newly acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez entered the ninth inning during the season's opening game with a 7-4 Detroit Tigers lead and exited it with the game going into extras. Two weeks later, with a 7.11 ERA and 1.74 WHIP over 6 1/3 innings, Tigers fans were wondering how, once again, the bullpen suddenly destroyed another reliever.
Thankfully, the beginning of Rodriguez’s time in Detroit was not a sign of things to come.
Over the past two months, the tides have quickly turned for K-Rod. He has given up only five runs in 21 1/3 innings and has locked down 21 saves for the Tigers, second in the American League. His 3.25 ERA and 3.02 FIP may not jump off of the page, but Rodriguez has been just what the Tigers needed at the back of the bullpen.
While not an elite closer, he ranks solidly among the other 48 relievers with at least two saves in 2016. Looking at just his stats since April 27, K-Rod would fall between 10th and 20th in most key areas and would be second only to New York's Andrew Miller in FIP.
The gap between Rodriguez’s ERA and FIP comes down to his ability to limit home runs. His only two long balls this season came as back-to-back solo shots in a game against the Kansas City Royals where he still managed to record the save; since then, he has kept every ball in the park. Home runs have not been a huge issue for K-Rod during his career, but his 0.65 HR/9 rate this season is even below his 0.83 HR/9 career average.
Much of this is due to a career-low fly ball rate, which is currently sitting at 28.4 percent. This is coupled with his lowest hard contact rate (25.7 percent) in six seasons, helping to limit the damage in the air. While his 9.5 percent HR/FB rate is the lowest he has enjoyed since 2011, the mark is actually right around his career average.
Rodriguez has limited fly balls by peppering the bottom of the zone. Entering this season, around 58 percent of his pitches were in the lower portion of the zone. In 2016, this figure has jumped up to over 70 percent, with less than 17 percent of his pitches landing in the middle or upper sections of the strike zone, compared to over 22 percent during the rest of his career.
|4/5 - 4/26||34%||40%||16%||10%|
|4/27 - 6/27||22%||43%||24%||11%|
Another big factor to K-Rod’s success has been a change in his approach. Historically, he has thrown his four-seam fastball almost twice as often as any other pitch, but for the first time in his career he is averaging less than 90 miles per hour when throwing it. Recognizing the need to adapt, he has thrown change-ups on over 40 percent of his pitches in 2016 and has held opponents to just a .195 average against it since April 27. His changeup is also producing more horizontal and vertical movement this season than it has in any of the five prior years.
It took a couple of weeks for Rodriguez to find his groove this season, but it seems like that stretch may prove fruitful in the long run. His ability to change his strategy is impressive for someone in the later stages in his career, and his ability to limit homers looks sustainable. While K-Rod is far from a flame-throwing, top-end closer, he is certainly capable of being the ninth-inning anchor in Detroit, and it is about time that the Tigers had a reliable guy who can shut the door.