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The Tigers need Eduardo Rodriguez to get it going

So far, the whiffs and command have been lacking and so have the results.

MLB: MAY 01 Tigers at Dodgers Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Tigers inked Eduardo Rodriguez to a contract during the offseason, they were betting on his strong underlying statistics translating to high quality innings at the top of the rotation. So far, that has not been the case. Through 25 23 innings, he has a 5.33 ERA but a 3.75 FIP with a 20.7 strikeout percentage and a 7.2 walk percentage. While some of his underlying numbers show promise, there is cause for concern.

In a fairly weak free agent pitching class, Rodriguez was among the top arms available. The Tigers jumped on him early before the lockout, signing him to a five year deal worth $77 million. There is an opt-out after the 2023 season, but if he keeps pitching like this, there’s very little chance that clause gets used. It’s far too early to start drawing comparisons to the last big free agent pitcher Detroit signed in Jordan Zimmermann — even though I will occasionally do it via angry texts to my family members — but the type of swings Rodriguez is getting are a bit worrisome despite the fact that he’s only made five starts.

Rodriguez is allowing an average exit velocity of 89.8 MPH, which puts him in the 33rd-percentile in Major League Baseball. For his career, his average exit velocity allowed is 86.8 MPH, and he’s finished his last two seasons in the top 10-percent of the league. His hard hit percentage is in the 28th-percentile in the league and is up a full 10-percent from last season. To make matters worse, his whiff-percentage is only in the 3rd-percentile in the league. Simply put, Rodriguez is giving up harder contact than he ever has in his career and is getting far less swings and misses than usual.

Why is this happening? That’s the 77-million-dollar question. It’s early, it’s been cold, and there are plenty of complaints about the slippery-ness of the new deadened baseballs, but Rodriguez’s fastball velocity is down from 92.6 MPH to 91.9 MPH. Still, he’s never been a power pitcher, so that doesn’t seem like the reason, and it’s early enough in the season where that isn’t abnormal. No, the issue is that he’s not commanding his pitches like he has in the past. Primarily a fastball-changeup-cutter pitcher, Rodriguez’s bread and butter has always been his ability to put each pitch wherever he wants it.

Location, location, location. From real estate to pitching, that’s what it’s all about. In 2021 — left — when Rodriguez was generating whiffs at a 31.3-percent rate on his fourseam fastball, he was working primarily towards the top third of the strikezone. This year — right — the fourseam is clearly leaking downward dead-red and is only generating a swing and a miss 14-percent of the time. His spin rate is similar to last season, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re throwing the baseball right down broadway to major league hitters. That would also explain the average exit velocity being 4 MPH higher off the pitch in 2022.

Much of the same can be said for his changeup. The good ones are still hitting his spots, but the misses have been particularly erratic, which makes a strong case for him not having found the feel for it yet. Another interesting and unfortunate note is that his spin rate is up to 1,958 rpm from 1,884 last season. For changeups, the spin rate should be as low as possible. Roughly 60 rpms isn’t a huge difference, but the combination of higher spin and less command may speak to some grip issues, and explains why he’s getting almost two inches less drop than last year. Both would help to explain the jump in slugging percentage from .384 in 2021 to .500 this year.

The location theme continues with Rodriguez and his cutter. Unlike last year where he was able to primarily locate it on the edges of the strikezone, his command hasn’t been as sharp so far. Average exit velocity on this pitch is 89.2 MPH while last year it was only 85.7. Spin rate is practically identical, so it’s all about placing the ball where he wants to in this case.

So the fastball-changeup-cutter pitcher doesn’t have as good a command of his fastball, changeup, or cutter. In particular, whiffs on the fastball and change are down as a result. That’s problematic. Could it be due to something he’s working on behind the scenes with pitching coach Chris Fetter? Are he and the Tigers’ catchers still trying to get on the same page? Could it be because he’s feeling the stress of playing with a new organization for the first time in his career? Could it be because Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball is obsessed with subtly changing the ball every year and not telling anyone? I can’t tell you why, but something is slightly off and it’s up to Rodriguez and the coaching staff to get it fixed so he can get back to being the weak-contact, command pitcher he is supposed to be.

At his best, Rodriguez gets ahead of hitters with well located strikes, and then baits hitters into expanding the zone. He’s quite good at using an opposing team’s aggressiveness against them. However, he’s actually thrown one of the highest first pitch strikes rates of his career here in the early going, and it hasn’t helped. We might also note that the Tigers have scored exactly two total runs in innings one through five through his five starts, so he hasn’t had any leads to work with either.

Rodriguez is only five games into his career as a Tiger, and there are still five months left in the season for him to get back on track. With the rash of injuries in the rotation coupled with the youth of the staff, the Tigers need him to be a steady arm now more than ever. Starting pitchers who work into the seventh inning are a dying breed, and he’s only had one season where he’s pitched over 200 innings, but at the very least he needs to be a quality start machine if the Tigers are to have any chance at righting this ship. Hopefully, this battle he’s having with his command will become a blip on an otherwise strong season. It’s still early, but Eduardo Rodriguez needs to find his command very soon otherwise the Tigers will once again find themselves outside of the wild card race when it counts.