Are you excited about Eduardo Rodriguez yet?
I bet you are. It’s hard not to get excited about a flame-throwing left-handed starting pitcher who was crazy successful in his major league debut. Make no mistake, there’s a lot to like about the new hot thing in Boston.
Rodriguez has all the hallmarks of a successful starter long-term: velocity, command, and multiple plus-pitches. He also carries a nice little prospect pedigree, though he’s been outshined at times by other players in both Baltimore (Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman) and Boston (Blake Swihart, Mookie Betts, maybe Henry Owens).
When the Sox dealt Andrew Miller for Rodriguez last season, it was seen to be a clear win for Boston at the time — but Rodriguez has continued to improve and develop since landing in the Red Sox system. That velocity I spoke of … it has ticked upwards since Rodriguez arrived in Pawtucket, and he’s made some adjustments to his changeup. The result is a three-pitch starter, where all three pitches project as plus over the long-term.
Eduardo Rodriguez’s debut, a stellar outing of just three hits and two walks over seven and two-thirds innings, set the expectations high for a strong start to his career. While PECOTA’s projections don’t have Rodriguez accumulating massive value this season, it’s primarily due to the fact that our favorite prognosticator didn’t anticipate real big-league innings. Now that the 22-year-old lefty has busted through the door, it’s time to see how things might play out over the course of two-thirds of a season in the Boston rotation.
To estimate how Rodriguez might perform in his rookie year, I tried a different method than just accessing the projection systems like PECOTA and their ilk. Instead, I wanted to see how other rookie starters have fared over the past five years, in this new and exciting world of a strikeout per inning and pitching dominance. Specifically, I was interested in lefty starters.
Rodriguez has all the hallmarks of a successful starter long-term: velocity, command, and multiple plus-pitches.
As you might expect, there are far fewer lefty starters than righties who’ve made their debuts from 2010-2014. From my initial pool of 185 pitcher seasons, I cut that down to just 49 left-handed starting pitcher seasons … and that number double-counts borderline “rookie” seasons by Mike Minor, Wade Miley, and Scott Diamond.
From there, I tried to identify a few pitchers most like Rodriguez: high-velocity guys with a similar pitch mix and/or prospect background. As you might imagine, several rookie seasons fall out of contention very quickly — there simply isn’t much to learn about Rodriguez from Hisanori Takahashi’s 2010 debut with the Mets at the age of 35. And since I just looked at the rookie seasons, remember that the initial first-year stat lines don’t necessarily reflect the whole future. Guys like Danny Duffy of the Royals and Dallas Keuchel had ignominious debuts, but eventually settled into productive roles. For Keuchel, “productive” means thrusting himself into the discussion for the Cy Young Award. Truly, anything is possible.
Anyways, before we get into specific comps, let me give you a little info about the total population of lefty rookies from 2010 to 2014. The first takeaway I got from this list is this: the odds are pretty good that Rodriguez could be pretty good — if he makes it to 40 or more IP. My list of 49 seasons includes 21 seasons that the pitcher snagged an ERA of 3.99 or better — meaning nearly half of qualified rookie starters had what I’d consider “good” run prevention in their debut season. FIP was even better … 23 starters posted a FIP below 4.00.
The pitchers who had the worst peripherals tended to be the guys without a strong prospect pedigree. The aforementioned Keuchel had the worst FIP of any lefty starter in a debut season (5.74), but most of the other guys near the bottom of the list were top prospects who had seen stock decline earlier in their minor league career (guys like Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich) or guys who were not much of a prospect to begin with (Brad Hand, Pedro Hernandez, Vidal Nuno). A couple of guys I’d consider to be similar in pedigree to E-Rod: Danny Duffy had a rough start (4.82 FIP and 5.64 ERA), as did Tyler Skaggs (4.86 FIP and 5.12 ERA).
So here are three guys that I think pose interesting comps to Rodriguez, in order from worst to best comparable expectation, based on gas, age, and background.
#3: James Paxton, 2014
Not bad, right? The main difference I see between Paxton and Rodriguez is that Paxton leverages his velocity into a high groundball rate, actually a good bit higher than what Rodriguez brings to the table. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eduardo’s GB% start to trend up in the big leagues, given Boston’s recent focus on pitching in the zone and inducing Masterson-esque contact, but Paxton is still more of a groundball specialist than our man.
The thing that Paxton is most similar to Rodriguez in is velocity — they don’t share very similar repertoires outside of mid-90s heat on the fastball. But that’s a pretty rare weapon that they both have. Sure, Paxton has more control issues, uses a curve as a secondary pitch, and has a history of injury that E-Rod just doesn’t share. But he also averages the fastest heater in the big leagues for a lefty starter — at least he did until Rodriguez showed up. Right now, he’s got the closest thing to Rodriguez’s velocity from the left side, and he’s been able to leverage that into some pretty solid performance over in Seattle.
One could argue that Rodriguez is different enough in profile to have a very different career arc. But no one can argue that he hasn’t been pretty effective in his first 156 innings in the big leagues. Starting his career like Paxton would certainly be a win.
#2: Tony Cingrani, 2013
This may not seem quite as good as the Paxton comp, given that Cingrani has lost his job as a starting pitcher. But Cingrani was quite good in 2013, and I feel he could match up nicely with Rodriguez in terms of results. He sat around 92 mph with his fastball in 2013, but he also used it about as often as Rodriguez might … more than two-thirds of all pitches. Cingrani also featured a slider and change, and was only about a year older than E-Rod is today during his debut.
Cingrani had flaws (home run rate) that were exacerbated by his home park in Cincinnati, a power-hitter’s haven. Rodriguez has had more time in the minors to refine his stuff than Cingrani did before his debut, so I’d say the long-term outlook is brighter. For the Reds’ phenom, the breaking stuff hasn’t improved yet. But Boston’s new kid on the block already has a slider that flashes plus. For this reason alone, I think there’s less of a chance that a good introductory season is followed by a rougher transition into a bullpen role. However, Cingrani could be a “worst-case” scenario of initial success followed by trouble when secondary stuff fails to develop.
#1: Matt Moore, 2012
This is my guy. I think that we could see a very similar performance to Matt Moore’s 2012, if we pro-rate Eduardo Rodriguez’s innings for 2015. Moore started off his starting career in Tampa Bay by throwing fast fastballs, a slider, and a change. He was in his age-23 season. And like Rodriguez, most scouts and analysts believed Moore could be a mid-rotation pitcher (or much, much better than that) from the jump. Despite the prospect pedigree and the raw stuff, Moore was plagued by inconsistency during his first time through the league, and that’s something we could see with Rodriguez as well.
Even some of the peripheral numbers at the minor league level were similar between the two pitchers. Moore saw his walk rate rise and his groundball rate drop as he moved into the big leagues, but he wasn’t all that different from Rodriguez before reaching the majors.
Moore had a famously high ceiling as a prospect, and Rodriguez has never been considered close to the top prospect in the game. But practically, I could see the two as sharing similar traits, including a high strikeout rate, mild control issues, and the potential to go through an up-and-down introductory season.
Before you get too excited, remember that anything can happen. The big leagues are a place where talented pitchers go to die. But like Paxton, Cingrani, and Moore — there are plenty of rookie left-handed starters who’ve had success in their first season in the bigs recently. If a any left-handed starting pitcher is good enough to get about 40 innings, then we should expect someone of Eduardo Rodriguez’s stature and background to be a net positive in the rotation for the rest of the season, despite the inevitable growing pains.
It’s nice to have something to look forward to in the rotation for a change.
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