It’s funny how things change. You look at the world and expect the future to conform based on what you see, then when the time comes for that to happen, something completely unexpected occurs instead. That’s what is happening to Eduardo Rodriguez right now. Chris Sale’s acquisition made Rodriguez the sixth man in a five-man rotation, and, as the only one with minor league options remaining, he was the odds on favorite to start the year in Triple-A Pawtucket. That was about a month ago, and in just that short span of time, Rodriguez has morphed from the most unimportant of the Red Sox starters to, if not the most important, then close enough.
The Red Sox handled David Ortiz’s retirement and the subsequent loss of his offensive prowess by doubling down on run prevention with the trade for Sale. That deal brought in one of the premier starters in baseball, but it also added a seventh to what had already been six Red Sox starters, though the trade of Clay Buchholz to Philadelphia brought that number back down to six again. Still, six is one too many and Rodriguez, by virtue of his age (23) but mostly his remaining minor league options was the odd man out. Now, oh how things have changed.
Now David Price is out for the foreseeable future and maybe longer. Now Drew Pomeranz has a sore triceps muscle in addition to any lingering issues from last season’s injury. Now Steven Wright is fully healthy, but is 32 and coming off a shoulder injury sustained from sliding into second while pinch running. He may pitch 200 innings this year, or he may pull a lat stabbing a particularly frisky juice box with a plastic straw and spend the season rehabbing. That’s three-fifths of the rotation that ranges from actively injured to remarkably fragile.
Of course, that’s the nature of pitching. The next pitch could always be the last one. That speaks to the importance of depth because not every team can be the 2016 Blue Jays and get 29 starts or more from five different guys. This is why Rodriguez has taken on so much importance of late. Not only is he healthy but he’s not any of Boston’s starting pitching depth, which consists of Rockies cast-off Kyle Kendrick and the stalled careers of former prospects Brian Johnson and Henry Owens. Johnson is coming off a lost season due to anxiety issues and, though he seems to be feeling better, his pitching has looked rusty to say the least. For Owens it’s the same old control problems that he’s never been able to shake. Kendrick has looked quite good but, again, it’s Spring Training, and we’re talking about a pitcher who A) hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015, and B) put up an ERA over six that season. Right now the fewer innings pitched by those three, the better the Red Sox will be.
Every game started by former sixth starter Rodriguez is a game the Red Sox don’t have to dip into that nonexistent depth.
Starting pitching depth not withstanding, it seems fair to say after looking at Boston’s roster that this could be a very good baseball team. PECOTA projects them for first in the East by three games. But the more games Kendrick starts, the more games the bullpen has to soak up after Owens throws 50 pitches and can’t get out of the second, the further down the standings the Red Sox will plummet. Every game started by former sixth starter Rodriguez is a game the Red Sox don’t have to dip into that nonexistent depth. As good as the Red Sox could be, they’re in no position to throw games away.
So that’s why Rodriguez is important. He’s a starter with an arm attached, a healthy shoulder, a healthy elbow, and his name isn’t Kyle Kendrick or Henry Owens. That’s a good start! But might Rodriguez actually be good in 2017? I should start by noting PECOTA isn’t especially jazzed about him, pegging him for just under a win (0.8 WARP), a 4.18 ERA, and eight quality starts out of 16. Meh. What PECOTA doesn’t know though is that Rodriguez struggled with his command, with pitch tipping, and with just about everything following a knee injury during spring training. After giving up nine runs in 2.2 innings to Tampa in late June, Rodriguez was sent to Pawtucket. At the time of his demotion, he had thrown 29.1 innings on the year and given up 29 runs.
When he came back, he was a completely different pitcher. In the next 77.2 innings he gave up 28 runs, one fewer than he had in his first six starts. He struck out 79 of 321 hitters he faced, or 24.6 percent. For some context, last season Jon Lester struck out 24.8 percent of the hitters he faced. David Price struck out 24 percent, Jake Arrieta K’d 23.9 percent, and Cole Hamels 23.6 percent. That’s good company. Of course, it means less if comes with a ton of walks and homers. After returning to the bigs, Rodriguez walked 8.7 percent of the hitters he faced (8.4 if you don’t count intentional walks) and he gave up seven homers, or one every other start, which is perfectly reasonable. The guy who went down to Pawtucket was not a major league-quality pitcher, but the guy who came back was a number two in most starting rotations.
There isn’t anything in those numbers that looks unsustainable either. The BABIP was good but not ridiculous, the batted ball profile matched the results, and so did the strikeouts, walks, and homers. The Rodriguez that spent the second half in Boston was legitimately a very good pitcher.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Rodriguez’s reemergence was the alteration of his pitch mix. When he started the season he was throwing mostly fastballs with the occasional changeup and a very occasional cutter. Only rarely would he employ a slider. Then after coming back from Triple-A, the cutter disappeared, usage of the change dropped from 18 percent to eight percent, and the slider became his favorite off-speed pitch. That changed bit-by-bit, month-by-month until September and October, when the change had reemerged as the preeminent out-pitch, though the slider remained a frequent offering. Overall, Rodriguez seems to have learned not to lean too heavily on any one pitch.
With the obvious caveat that Spring Training stats aren’t extremely meaningful, we haven’t seen anything this spring to indicate we should expect anything other than the second half Rodriguez, the good Rodriguez, this season. His velocity is good, his strikeouts are there, and his control looks strong.
He will have bad starts. All pitchers have them. And for all the excitement of this article, Rodriguez has shown a proclivity towards injury in his career, including tweaking a knee in winter ball this past December. While it is fair to be concerned about those injuries, the positive is that none have been arm or shoulder injuries. If one really wants to paint the linings silver, you could say they’ve even functioned so as to limit Rodriguez’s innings over the past few seasons, which should hopefully keep his arm fresher. In reality though, no injury is ever good, but there’s no real reason to think Rodriguez is especially injury prone either.
With the precarious position the Red Sox find themselves with regard to the starting rotation, it’s good they have someone like Eduardo Rodriguez poised to take the next step. In fact, Rodriguez really already took that next step last season. Now he just needs to do it for longer than 77 innings. We already know he is someone who can make up for injuries suffered by his rotation-mates, and keep the team from having to put too many weak band-aids on sweaty hands. This year though a once strong Red Sox rotation had him on the outside looking in, but now the opportunity to be more than just a guy has arisen. Now he may just be the guy who holds this thing together. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
Photo by Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports