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Francisco Rodriguez should still be the Tigers’ closer... for now

A sluggish start to 2017 has fans on K-Rod’s case once again.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The ninth inning has been a problem area for the Detroit Tigers for years. While their closers have generally gotten the job done in crunch time — I said “generally,” don’t at me — there have been countless hair-raising moments along the way. From Todd Jones to Fernando Rodney, Jose Valverde to Joe Nathan, Tigers fans have almost never been comfortable with their closer.

Current closer Francisco Rodriguez added another near-miss to the tally on Tuesday, allowing a pair of baserunners before retiring the side in a 5-2 win over the Cleveland Indians. It was his seventh save of the season, but he drew plenty of criticism for a rough April. At one point, Rodriguez had a 6.23 ERA and had allowed runs in six of nine appearances. Ever a patient bunch, Tigers fans were overwhelmingly ready to kick him to the curb and move another reliever into the ninth inning role.

It’s in the Tigers’ best interest to keep Rodriguez as their closer, though. Here are a few reasons why.

He’s not their best reliever

To the general populace (or at least the people that read our crappy tweets), this logic might seem backward. They, like most old-timey baseball men, believe that the last three outs of the game are the hardest to get. To them, it takes your best and sturdiest reliever, one created in fire that eats nails for breakfast, to get those last three outs.

Chances are, if you have wandered over to our corner of the internet, you believe differently. We don’t know if it was by accident or on purpose, but the Tigers already have their best relievers, Alex and Justin Wilson, pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. Alex Wilson’s usage has varied a bit throughout his career, but he seems like the “third” man on the pecking order. Things tend to go to hell earlier than the ninth inning in baseball games, and having these two bridge the gap between struggling starter and ninth-inning closer is a solid blend of role-based bullpen management and modern thinking.

This brings us to Rodriguez. If he’s the third or fourth-best reliever on the team, he belongs in the ninth inning. Let him rack up saves, terrifying as they may be at the time. He will get three outs before giving up the lead more often than not. Everyone will blow a save or two given enough opportunities, and Rodriguez has enough Bugs Bunny changeups left in him to get through the season. Bonus perk: more important relievers don’t have their future arbitration salaries inflated by a dumb statistic.

His fastball velocity hasn’t actually declined

Rodriguez is no longer the flame-throwing phenom that earned his K-Rod nickname earlier in his career, but recent concerns about his fastball velocity are overblown.

Yes, this looks scary, but if you just focus on the April numbers, Rodriguez’s velocity has only dropped by about half a mile per hour per season. His four-seamer was at 89.6 mph in April 2015, 89.0 mph last year, and 88.4 mph in 2017. It then spiked in May in both 2015 and 2016, and seems to be doing the same early on this year.

Plus, Rodriguez’s velocity isn’t all that important. Pitchers don’t blow hitters away with a 90 mph fastball unless they’re named Rich Hill, and the same goes for one traveling 89 mph. The most important thing that Rodriguez can do is to maintain velocity separation between his fastball and changeup. So far, that’s going just fine.

He is still throwing the changeup more often than the fastball, which is how he has gotten hitters out for the past three or four years.

He tends to struggle in April

Rodriguez’s career stats don’t really hold much weight at this point, but he does have a higher career ERA and WHIP in April than he does in May. That hasn’t necessarily held true over the past few years, though. Here are the ERAs Rodriguez has posted in each of his past five Aprils.

2012: 5.56
2013: Did not pitch
2014: 0.00
2015: 2.57
2016: 5.19
2017: 5.59

There’s not much of a trend here. If we wanted to find one, though, we could look at May and see that Rodriguez has improved considerably on his April ERA in four of those five seasons, with 2014 being the obvious exception.

This argument won’t hold any weight with the statistical zealots out there, though, so let’s dig deeper. Rodriguez has allowed a boatload of hard contact in each of the past four seasons, starting with that ridiculous 16-scoreless-inning effort in 2014. His hard contact rates in each of those years are as follows:

2014: 46.7%
2015: 38.9%
2016: 34.6%
2017: 34.4%

To put those numbers in context, Mark Lowe allowed a 37.3 percent hard contact rate last season.

Now, let’s look at May.

2014: 48.6%
2015: 13.0%
2016: 25.0%
2017: 0%*

We are dealing with teensy sample sizes here, but the evidence suggests that this iteration of Rodriguez starts slow before getting into gear sometime in May. That he deals with visa issues every spring and pitched sporadically in the World Baseball Classic this year only adds to this theory.

Yes, there is a chance that Rodriguez simply can’t be an effective reliever at the MLB level anymore. However, underlying numbers like a slight uptick in strikeout rate and an 11.1 percent swinging strike rate suggest that isn’t the case. He endured a slow start to the year, but has earned a long enough leash to dig himself out of the ugly ERA hole he is currently in. Until he proves he can’t hack it anymore, he deserves the ball in the ninth inning.