Bruce Rondon finally rewarded the Detroit Tigers’ faith in him last season. After two seasons marred by elbow surgery and a slow return to form, Rondon finally got hot in the second half. While Shane Greene and Justin Wilson came to camp as the Tigers’ preferred set-up men as the 2017 season approaches, both had issues of their own last season. Just a slight improvement by Rondon this year will likely earn him the high leverage innings he was always expected to handle. There’s a decent argument to be made that the Tigers’ bullpen success depends on him doing so.
Rondon obviously has a nasty slider that he at times can get over for a strike and certainly buries for whiffs when he’s ahead. He struck out an outstanding 31.3 percent of hitters faced in 2016 largely because the slider was so devastating. Hitters managed a wRC+ of 14 against the pitch. It appeared to be in mid-season form during World Baseball Classic play for Team Venezuela.
Bruce Rondon strands two runners with the K and we head to the 8th with Venezuela trailing 2-0. #WBC2017 pic.twitter.com/Xsu8FQdBzj— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) March 17, 2017
However, Rondon is going to go as his fastball command goes. In 2016 he was much more successful in throwing first pitch strikes. He also made huge strides by cutting his walk rate in half. He was much more effective in getting the first out in his innings. Obviously he needs to maintain those gains to do his best work, and to avoid falling behind in counts, where hitters can hunt for fastballs to jump on.
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Despite averaging 97.2 mph, and topping out at 101 mph in 2016, Rondon’s fastball was somewhat unremarkable in its results. Hitters only managed a wRC+ of 101 against it, which is good. But that’s poorly supported by a BABIP of just .208. Considering that 29.1 percent of balls in play off the fastball were line drives, and you have to assume some significant regression there. Particularly as the Tigers aren’t fielding a notably solid defensive unit behind him. The question is whether he can trim the home run rate back to his career norms to compensate.
Rondon has never really had a home run problem at any point in his development. Allowing 1.24 home runs per nine is a higher rate than you’d prefer, but its important to recognize how small a sample we’re dealing with. He only allowed five in 36 and 1⁄3 innings in 2016. Rondon’s rate during his Triple-A stint was 0.42 per nine innings, by comparison. So there isn’t any major trend toward giving up more home runs.
However, Rondon’s batted ball profile did tilt heavily toward fly balls last season. He went from 38 percent in 2015 to around 50 percent in 2016. His home runs per fly ball crept up a few points. He allowed more hard contact overall as well when compared to previous seasons. It’s not a problem yet, but the Tigers need him to keep it in check going forward.
There were a few initial concerns this spring that the Venezuelan fireballer wasn’t running as hot as you’d expect. But as Brad Ausmus suspected, Rondon was throwing with his usual gas once he got into action in the World Baseball Classic. High velocity is good. Home run rates and velocity seem to have at least a minor inverse relationship. As long as Rondon has the high octane fastball, hitters should have a fairly tough time squaring him up for many home runs.
Francisco Rodriguez was a major positive influence on Rondon in 2016. The 26-year-old reliever showed off his mentor’s tutelage, employing the quick pitch at times, and noticeably varied his delivery times both to fool hitters, and to check baserunners. These improvements stemmed from Rodriguez’ influence. These are all subtler elements to a pitcher’s craft that help keep hitters off-balance, and baserunners honest.
"I learned a lot from him and I give him thanks for just being on top of me, day in and day out, and giving me advice every day," Rondon said Monday during an interview that was conducted primarily in English. In the past, he has relied on a translator.
This season, Rondon is looking to Rodriguez and pitching coach, Rich Dubee, for advice in developing his changeup. I wrote about Rondon’s changeup back in August, arguing that he should use it more often. That didn’t happen, mainly for reasons of comfort last season. But it’s a pitch that could really add a new wrinkle to his game, and Rondon knows it.
Thrown close to 90 miles per hour, Rondon’s changeup features a lot of tailing action, and is basically the equivalent of another pitcher’s quality two-seamer. Rondon used the pitch with some regularity in 2015, but largely went away from it last season. If he can find the comfort level he’s looking for this spring, he’ll add a third dimension to his arsenal that will help keep especially left-handed hitters off-balance, and make it even more difficult for them to sit on his fastball.
The Tigers come into the 2017 season with a fairly impressive collection of talent in their bullpen. And yet for several of them, their results didn’t match their peripheral numbers last season. Shane Greene and Justin Wilson feel like a pair of pretty volatile assets right now. They may pitch the way their numbers suggest they should. Or they could struggle to be be consistent once again.
Either way, it will be important for Rondon to sustain the gains in command he featured in 2016. If he’s able to do so, you can expect him to take over a sizable chunk of the higher leverage innings. The bullpen is as talented yet fragile as the rest of the roster. The Tigers would prefer Bruce Rondon to be an auxiliary weapon to really turn the bullpen into a strength. But it’s just as likely that they’ll end up relying on him in 2017. Hopefully he’s finally up to the task.