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2017 Tigers player preview: Francisco Rodriguez’s curveball may keep him ahead of the game

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The veteran closer needs a new trick to stay ahead of hitters.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Francisco Rodriguez’s first season as the Detroit Tigers’ closer went pretty well. There were a few stretches where he was ineffective, but he was able to cut them off before ever really having a prolonged slump. He converted a respectable 44 of 49 save opportunities, and his peripherals were solid, if unspectacular. On display were consistent doses of the pitch craft that has allowed him to reinvent himself several times already during his fourteen seasons in the major leagues. However, it is also apparent that he’s at a point in his career where success resides on a razor’s edge.

No longer possessing the raw stuff to get a lot of whiffs in the strike zone, Rodriguez relies heavily on getting ahead in counts and forcing hitters to swing over his changeup below the zone, or chop ground balls off his two-seam fastball. The increasing ground ball rates against Rodriguez are really his sole positive trend over the past few seasons. But neither pitch is one you want to see miss over the heart of the plate in a hitter’s count.

Rodriguez knows this well. Once he’s down 2-0 to a hitter, they’re likely getting on base, because he often just refuses to give in and throw them hittable pitches. If they do get a pitch in the strike zone, they rarely miss it. In that sense, Rodriguez is definitely a closer, in the sense that he’s incorporated the pressure on his opposition into his entire approach. He’s unlikely to be of much use as a middle reliever, for example, should things finally come undone for him this season.

Count wOBA Avg OBP Slg
Count wOBA Avg OBP Slg
0-0 0.279 0.211 0.285 0.357
0-1 0.236 0.208 0.24 0.303
1-0 0.319 0.184 0.333 0.4
2-0 0.395 0.188 0.519 0.313

That on-base percentage over .500 when behind 2-0 in a count tells you what you need to know as far as how much Rodriguez himself trusts his stuff anywhere but the edges of the strike zone or beyond. He’s not going to miss over the plate even when he badly needs a strike. He’ll continue to try to bait hitters into swinging at one of his offspeed variations below the strike zone. Or he’ll throw a fastball around the edges, hoping for a favorable call or weak contact on the ground.

In 2016, he continued to be pretty successful with that approach. However, American League hitters got a long look at Rodriguez last season, and they may not be so easily baited this season.

An indication that hitters began to get a bead on Rodriguez may be found in his second half numbers. While hitters weren’t much more successful in overall run scoring, Rodriguez peripheral numbers suggest a distinct decline in performance. His 4.74 FIP contasts sharply with the 3.04 FIP he posted in the first half. Just as troubling were the higher walk and home run rates and a strikeout percentage that fell from 24.5 percent in the first half to 19.5 after the All-Star break. These are all small samples, the curse of evaluating any reliever, but there’s evidence to suggest that as teams grew familiar with Rodriguez, his effectiveness diminished.

Francisco Rodriguez, however, is a master of reinvention. Again and again, he’s altered his pitch selection and usage to allow himself to succeed as a closer as his velocity has declined. Beyond varied times to the plate, and deception caused by a delivery that resembles an interpretation of the life of Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian devil, Rodriguez has other tricks up his sleeve. He mixes speeds and spin angle with his changeup and has the able to make it break horizontally in either direction, or even straight down with heavy sink.

If something new is required in 2017, the likeliest candidate to help may be his curveball. Rodriguez managed one of the higher rates of first pitch strikes in his career last year. At 61 percent, that rate was only surpassed by his 2015 performance. That rate of first pitch strikes likely is the key to Rodriguez producing another solid year of relief work. However, as much as Rodriguez needs to get ahead in the count, hitters are going to catch on if he becomes much more predictable than that. The answer may be to try and mix more curveballs into his profile to steal some extra strikes without exposing his quite modest fastball to aggressive hitters.

Hitters posted just a .461 OPS against Rodriguez’ curveball in 2016. He only threw it about eleven percent of the time, so the pitch benefited from surprise to a degree. Yet the pitch averages 76 miles per hour, with an exceptional spin rate of 2772 rpms. That is excellent spin for a curveball, particularly for one of below average velocity. It’s also notable in that Rodriguez gets almost seven inches of horizontal break on the pitch, which is well above average. That movement, away from right-handed hitters, makes it more difficult to square up, to say nothing of its knee-locking downward bite.

However, hitters only swung and missed at the curveball around 10 percent of the time, a relatively unimpressive result. One shouldn’t take the curveball’s raw movement to guarantee anything. To a substantial degree, how a breaking ball fits into a pitchers’ overall repertoire is important. Because Rodriguez doesn’t really have the fourseam fastball to pitch above the top of the strike zone, the curveball is unlikely to prove a wholesale panacea. What it may do, however, is give hitters a third pitch to concern themselves with, and allow Rodriguez to continue getting ahead of hitters first pitch without his sinker getting mauled in the process.

In his recent appearances for Team Venezuela, Rodriguez threw several first pitch curveballs. We’re only looking at a handful of appearances, but it was suggestive of a pitcher trying something out. He’s certainly aware that his fastballs aren’t getting the job done the way they used to. His two-seam fastball was crushed in 2016 to the ugly tune of a 221 wRC+ against. While his four-seam fastball was basically league average, it’s clear that Rodriguez can no longer pour fastballs into the zone without serious trouble. Hitters are hunting them with great success.

Francisco Rodriguez is one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to analyze. He does so many unique things, both in his motion and and in constantly altering his pitch selection. He has the ability to manipulate the spin on his offspeed pitches in ways most pitchers can’t. His assortment of changeups is still going to be the central key to success this season. But, he’s also a master at manipulating the thought process of hitters. He threw just 20 first pitch curveballs in 2016. Changing his pitch mix, especially early in the season, may be a way of keeping one step ahead of the game.