The 2019 Tigers offense is not good. They rank in the bottom five in runs (139), home runs (33), slugging percentage (.375) and OPS (.671) and have scored three runs or less in over half of the team’s 40 games.
Those numbers would all look a lot worse without the unexpected breakout of utility infielder Ronny Rodriguez.
Yes, we’re talking about the same Ronny Rodriguez who slashed .220/.256/.335 in 2018 across 62 games; the one who was worth -1.0 WAR and connected on only 12 extra-base hits with 10 walks over 206 plate appearances. The infielder was called up from Toledo in mid-April following Jordy Mercer’s designation to the IL to little fanfare and very modest expectations.
Fast forward to mid-May, and Rodriguez has become the most dangerous bat in the Tigers’ lineup, leading the team in home runs (six), RBI (17) and fWAR (1.1). If he had the ABs to qualify, he would also be first in batting average (.312), slugging percentage (.701) and OPS (1.058). His weighted runs above average (wRAA) has jumped from -9.7 last season to 8.0 and his weighted on base average (wOBA) has improved to .430 from .257.
So, how exactly has “El Felino” gone from barely holding onto his roster spot to being someone that manager Ron Gardenhire cannot afford to take out of the lineup?
The biggest factor is his newfound extra base power.
In 2018, Rodriguez hit seven doubles, no triples and five home runs. Those numbers have already reached new heights in 2019 with eight, two and six respectively.
This comes from several components. His isolated power (ISO) has more than tripled, flying up to .390 from .115 a season ago. This means that his extra base power has increased exponentially compared to last season, as he’s hitting balls into gaps more consistently, allowing himself to take doubles and triples instead of settling for singles. Additionally, speed score has doubled from a “below-average” 3.2 to a “great” 6.4. This also takes into account his two stolen bases, which already matches his 2018 total.
His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests regression in the coming weeks, as his .333 is high for a career .246 hitter, but it’s worth noting that his 2018 BABIP ended up being .253 – considerably higher than the .220 batting average he finished with.
The most significant stat in Rodriguez’s outburst, is the type of contact he’s making. In 2018, his hard contact rate was 35.1 percent. Now, that’s improved to 50 percent, while his soft contact rate has dropped from 22.7 percent to 16.7 percent. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, that would put him tied for 14th in the league with George Springer, Carlos Correa, Carlos Santana and Miguel Cabrera.
Translated into Statcast metrics, Rodriguez’s average exit velocity off the bat is up six full miles per hour over last season, and his average launch angle is six degrees higher. These are the ingredients to a major improvement in power production. His success is born out by a .415 wOBA (weighted on base average), which is only slightly undercut by an expected wOBA of .388. Basically, there isn’t much batted ball luck involved here.
In terms of batted ball type and direction, Rodriguez has also had the recipe for power. He’s increased his fly ball percentage by 10 percent and he’s turning on more pitches. His pull percentage is actually a whopping 20 percent higher than it was last season. Make more hard contact, in the air, to the pull field, and you’re going to have a good time.
If anything were to suggest that this is all an anomaly, beyond his previous results as a professional, it’s that Rodriguez is striking out at a higher rate than he did last season. This is likely a result of him looking to mash compared to simply making contact, but he’s also swinging at pitches outside the strike zone more often than before.
We’re only about a month into Rodriguez’s tirade at the plate. It’s difficult to predict whether or not the 27-year-old’s production will remain this good – let alone serviceable – in the coming months. The logical answer is that he won’t, but it is worth noting that his 1.0 WAR this season is the same amount as former Tigers who also had out-of-nowhere breakouts: J.D. Martinez and Eugenio Suarez. If Rodriguez can just retain some portion of his improved contact, we may have something here, even if his current results are presumably unsustainable.
With Rodriguez’s ability to play across the infield, he will continue to get consistent ABs. Now, it’s simply a matter of whether he will continue to earn them or not.