Only one week of the season has transpired, and the Red Sox are already in the midst of a difficult time. Injuries and an attack by three different strains of flu have set the team back. The good news is that they have slogged through it to post a 3-3 record against two pretty good teams in the Pirates and Tigers. But the cracks in the team’s foundation are visible. The injuries and illness within the pitching staff, most notably David Price, Tyler Thornburg, and Robbie Ross Jr., have placed a larger burden of responsibility on a number of players. For example, Eduardo Rodriguez. With David Price injured – and having a murky timeframe for return – Eduardo’s role in the rotation has been elevated. If Rodriguez takes the role and pitches like many think he is capable, then, even in Price’s absence, the Red Sox will have a formidable front-three in their rotation with him, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello. Things will get even rosier if, and when, Price comes back. However, if Rodriguez falters (and David Price does not return at full strength) the rotation rapidly becomes a glaring weakness.
On Saturday, in his first start of the year, Rodriguez did little to instill confidence that he is ready to make the next performance jump and have us forget that Price is still in the early stages of throwing off a mound. Over five innings against the Tigers, Rodriguez allowed four runs on five hits, two of which left the yard, and only struck out five, while walking three. All in all, it was another underwhelming Rodriguez performance that involved the same issues that have affected him throughout his tenure with the Red Sox: lacking aggression in the strike zone, which leads to the walks, and being predictable in certain counts, which leads to the extra-base hits.
Let’s start with the lacking aggression part. On Saturday, he only threw 41 of his pitches for strikes (51.3 percent), which is bad, but also not that far off his career rate of 63 percent. So maybe we should expect this sort of outing from him. His career strike rate is the 30th lowest since 2015 among starters with at least 200 innings pitched and the guys at the wrong end of that list are primarily those who have not been able to figure out their stuff (e.g., Trevor Bauer [61.7], Carlos Rodon [61.7], and Patrick Corbin [62.8]). Oh and teammates Drew Pomeranz (62.6) and knuckleballer (!) Steven Wright (63.2) are down there with him. Your 2017 Red Sox starting rotation: not exactly a group of strike-throwers. Throwing few pitches for strikes is not in-and-of itself a guarantee that a pitcher is or will be bad. While most of the good/great/elite guys are 65+ percent, there are good pitchers on the wrong end of that list (e.g., Aaron Sanchez [61.4] and Dallas Keuchel [62.9]). But that is likely more a function of deception and movement of their pitches, and Rodriguez’s zone plot from Saturday looks like one from a guy who didn’t really know where the ball was going:
Of course, Saturday is just one start, and he may have lacked feel due it being his first on the season and the cooler temperatures in Detroit (53 degrees at game time; 12 for all you metric [read: correct] folks out there). But the inability to locate pitches in the zone, or fear of doing so, fits with a trend of Rodriguez nibbling and pitching too carefully.
The nibbling and careful pitching stems from (or perhaps leads to) Rodriguez lacking trust in his secondary offerings, which makes him predictable. Working on his offspeed pitches, specifically his slider, was a focus for Rodriguez this spring. To date he has been good at hitting one specific spot with his slider:
Eventually, major league batters will just lay off pitches they know are not thrown for strikes. And if Rodriguez knows he can’t throw his slider for a strike, then he will come to abandon it in certain counts, as he did on Saturday. Ten of the 13 sliders he threw came as the first pitch of a plate appearance or when the count got to 1-0. Tiger batters could quickly eliminate the pitch from concern, if they were even concerned to begin with. Tipping pitches, as Rodriguez has had issues with, is not just physical. It can also be due to falling into patterns. Is it a coincidence that the two home runs, and one of the two doubles Rodriguez allowed on Saturday came in 2-1 counts and all three were off his sinker? Well yes, of course it could be a coincidence, it was only three events, but similar issues with count-dependent pitch selection were present last year. For example, in two- and three-ball counts the rate at which Rodriguez threw his slider dropped considerably. The Brooks Baseball zone plot above clearly shows why he tended that way: he doesn’t throw it in the strike zone. As such he used it to start plate appearances, and in two-strike counts, hoping to get batters to chase. If I can figure this stuff out, then I suspect a major league team can figure it out and will be telling their hitters.
There is no doubt that Rodriguez has good or even great stuff, but watching him pitch can be remarkably frustrating, and his first start of the 2017 season was another example of that. He did have five strikeouts, but the three walks mitigates much of that excitement. He can be much better. I will note that even in his up-and-down 2016 season Rodriguez was an above average starter (91.9 DRA-). But again, he can be better than slightly above average. The message here is: if his potential is ever going to come to fruition, Rodriguez needs to develop and learn to trust his secondary pitches and then throw them more consistently across all counts. It is great that Rodriguez wanted to put in the work to refine his slider this spring, but (based on his first start) he still seems to lack confidence in the pitch. His new rotation-mate, Chris Sale, might know a thing or two about throwing a slider, so perhaps Rodriguez should check in with him. If Rodriguez manages to get it figured out and remains healthy, he should have the season we have been expecting.
Photo by Rick Osentoski – USA TODAY Sports