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Eduardo Rodriguez looks to take the next step in 2016

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The Red Sox need someone to step up to form a strong one-two punch with David Price. With a few adjustments, Eduardo Rodriguez can be that guy.

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The Red Sox addressed the massive hole atop their rotation by signing David Price a few weeks ago, making fans around the region very happy. The group figures to be much better just by this simple addition, and it appears the front office won’t be making any more moves after shipping out Wade Miley. That leaves Price and a whole lot of question marks — question marks with potential, granted, but question marks all the same.

The number one inquiry becomes who will slot in as the number two guy? Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez appear to be the best chances, and both of them carry significant risk. We all know what that refers to with Buchholz, who has all the talent in the world but can’t stay healthy for a full season. Rodriguez, however, is a bit of a more unknown.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know what to expect from the young southpaw this year, because I don’t. We're all aware of his prospect pedigree. He took his game to another level after coming to this organization in the summer of 2014 and became one of the best prospects in the system. We all know he put together a very solid showing in his first taste of major-league lineups, too.

Rodriguez ended up with a 3.85 ERA in 21 starts, good for a solidly above-average 112 ERA+. His peripherals weren’t quite as optimistic, as his 3.92 FIP translated to a roughly league-average mark according to Fangraphs’ FIP-. Lately, I’ve been trying to incorporate Baseball Prospectus’ DRA and cFIP stats into my analysis more, since they take more contextual factors than simple FIP into account. DRA very much liked Rodriguez’s 2015, as his 80 DRA- (adjusted for league-average and park effects) tied for 21st among the 141 pitchers with at least 100 innings. He came in with a 99 cFIP, however, again pegging him as merely an average pitcher. Obviously, a league-average season for a 22-year-old rookie is hardly a bad thing, but it doesn’t scream top-of-the-rotation pitcher, either.

Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Looking ahead to Rodriguez’s second major-league season, there are a wide range of possibilities. He could take that leap forward and realize his full potential. He could stay as a solid if unspectacular league-average pitcher. He could even bomb out after the league makes a few adjustments out of him. For my money, a lot of this will depend on whether or not he can improve his strikeout ability. In 2015, he was slightly below average in both K/9 and K%, finishing up at 7.2 and 18.8 percent, respectively. A big key for the upcoming season is whether or not he can take a step forward here.

Looking at his plate discipline numbers on his Baseball Prospectus player page, this wasn’t the case of someone with strikeout stuff getting unlucky with sequencing in a small sample. Quite simply, Rodriguez just didn’t induce a lot of swings and misses this past year. He finished the season with a SwStr% just above 19 percent, which placed him ahead of just 30 of the 145 pitchers who tossed at least 1500 pitches in 2015. For context, this put hi just ahead of Tim Hudson and Alfredo Simon, and just behind Jake Peavy and Joe Kelly. He was able to get most of his strikeout simply by pounding the zone. His roughly 50 percent zone rate ranked 35th among those same 145 pitches, tying with Clayton Kershaw. Of course, the Dodgers ace gets a few more swings and misses. Really, the biggest issue was that Rodriguez failed to fool a lot of hitters last year, inducing swings on pitches out of the zone just 28 percent of the time. That ranked 113th in baseball. It’s hard to get strikeouts if players aren’t going to chase pitches out of the zone.

Moving over to Rodriguez’s Brooks Baseball page, the clear culprit in this shortcoming is his primary pitch, the fastball. The good news here is that the young lefty didn’t lose any juice on this pitch as the year went on, as it’s average velocity remained in the 94-95 mph range even as the season wound down. However, it wasn’t a pitch that fooled many batters, as it induced a swing and miss just over 13 percent of the time. On the other hand, his secondary pitches — mainly a change up and a slider — induced plenty of whiffs, with each coming in with a rate over 20 percent. Those pitches couldn’t make much of a difference, though, since Rodriguez threw his fastball almost two-thirds of the time.

Luckily, the outlook isn’t completely negative for him as we look ahead to 2016, with a couple of points in his favor. The first of which is his quality of competition. Pitching in the AL East will almost always result in a hard slate of competition for Rodriguez, but it was taken to an extreme this year. He faced five teams more than once — the Yankees, Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays and Rays — and four of them were among the top ten offenses in the league by wRC+, and three were in the top ten by K%. Additionally, Baseball Prospectus has a stat called oppRA+ that measures the quality of pitcher’s opponents. By that metric, Rodriguez’s slate was the second toughest of any pitcher with at least 100 innings this season, finishing behind only Masahiro Tanaka and tying with Andrew Heaney. A more normal schedule should do wonders for him.

The other point in Rodriguez’s favor is an interesting comp I stumbled upon. The young Red Sox's 2015 had a lot in common with Shelby Miller’s disappointing 2014, at least in terms of plate discipline numbers and pitch usage. Miller also pounded the zone that year while inducing very few whiffs and overusing his fastball. Of course, he had a much better 2015, in part thanks to a much-improved ability to induce swings on pitches out of the zone, which in turn improved his swinging strike rate. This was no doubt at least partially thanks to a more well-rounded repertoire, as he found more trust in his secondary pitches last season. Of course, it’s not a perfect comp since Miller had major-league experience before 2014. However, both are former top prospects and it’s a nice model for Rodriguez to look forward to.

The coming season is going to be a very big one for Rodriguez, who is on a team that needs a starting pitcher to step up. As with all sophomores, potential improvements will be marked by adjustments, and you can be sure the league will adjust against him. After pounding the zone with his fastball so much this year, expect to see more early swings in the count to start the year. It’s up to Rodriguez to lean on his secondary offerings to counter this trend. There’s plenty of potential in this arm, and it’s easy to see a path to more strikeouts coming from it. It’s up to Rodriguez to get those K’s, and if he does, the Red Sox just might have their number two starter for the long term.