Ask any Red Sox fan what the most important task Dave Dombrowski has to tackle this offseason, and they’ll almost unanimously tell you it’s fixing the rotation. Ben Cherington had a clear plan to build the 2015 rotation around solid-but-unspectacular ground ball pitchers. That plan failed. It’s fair to say there was some bad luck that surrounded the group’s struggles — especially in the first part of the year — but there’s no denying that they need to go in a new direction next year.
The first part of tackling this complicated problem is deciding who will remain in the rotation. Barring anything unforeseen, Eduardo Rodriguez will be one of those pitchers. His performance has been up and down since joining the major-league rotation, but he’s clearly earned a spot for next year. Given his age and other indicators, there’s plenty of reason for Red Sox fans to be excited about this.
We all know the Rodriguez story at this point. He was acquired for a half-season of Andrew Miller who, while outstanding, is still a reliever. It was viewed as a borderline steal at the time, and nothing that’s happened since then has changed people’s minds.
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Prior to making his major-league debut, the general consensus among scouts around the interwebs was that he was a solid mid-rotation type who could suffer from a lack of a plus secondary pitch and spotty command. He was touted as a pitcher with solid stuff that was inconsistent at times. So far, those scouting reports seem to be accurate, though he’s been closer to the best-case scenarios than the worst case through his first 100 major-league innings.
Overall, Rodriguez has tossed 109-2/3 frames over 19 starts in the majors. In that time, he’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA, good for an impressive 110 ERA+. We all know ERA isn’t the best measure of performance, however. Baseball Prospectus recently introduced a few new pitching statistics that better take into account some of the outside factors that affect a pitcher’s performance. DRA is their descriptive stat, a la ERA, focusing mainly on the things that have happened. cFIP is their predictive stat, a la FIP, focusing on factors that give us a better idea of what to expect moving forward. Among the 130 pitchers in baseball with at least 100 innings this season, Rodriguez ranks 23rd in DRA- (like ERA+, using park effects to compare a pitcher to league-average). He finds himself slightly ahead of pitchers like Matt Harvey, Johnny Cueto, Carlos Carrasco and Michael Wacha on this leaderboard. cFIP likes him a little less, though he’s still solid in this respect. With a 99 cFIP (making him essentially league-average), Rodriguez is tied for 50th with guys like James Shields, Alex Colome and Jordan Zimmermann. Only Clay Buchholz ranks higher among Red Sox pitchers.
Rodriguez’s more traditional peripherals also tell an encouraging story. He’s currently striking out 19 percent of the batters he’s faced, very slightly worse than league-average. He’s also walking 7.3 percent of his opponents, which is very slightly better than league-average. Combine that with roughly a home run allowed every nine innings, and he’s the owner of a 3.96 FIP. According to Fangraphs’ FIP-, his overall peripherals are — you guessed it — league-average.
For someone who was, at times, as highly-touted as Rodriguez was, only being league-average can be a bit discouraging. However, context is always important, especially when we’re talking about a player this young experiencing his first taste of major-league competition. So, to put this into context, I looked for some pitchers who had similar numbers.
The first group I looked to was all of the pitchers since 2000 with rookie eligibility who: threw 100 innings with an ERA+ of at least 100, a FIP of no more than 4.00, at least 7.0 K/9 and no more than 3.0 walks per nine innings. You can see the full results here, and they bode very well for Rodriguez. You can look through the list yourself, but there aren’t many discouraging names on this list. Barring health concerns, just about all of these guys are at least formidable rotation pitchers.
The other group I looked at was the same as the first, except instead of using rookie status I looked at any pitcher who did it at age-22 or younger. The full list is here. The first thing you notice is the list is much shorter, which makes sense. Not many pitchers make their debut at such a young age, and even fewer succeed at such a high level. The other thing you notice is the quality of pitcher is much, much better on this second list. While the first group had guys like T.J. House and Travis Wood, the worst pitcher in the second group is arguably Brett Anderson, who has been held back almost exclusively by injury. Judging by the talent of this group, Rodriguez has a bright future if he can stay on the mound.
At this point we all know that Rodriguez is a good pitcher and he’ll be in the rotation in 2016. What I’m not sure most people knew (or at least I didn’t know it) is just how rare this kind of performance is. Even if he’s been frustrating at times, he’s been one of a handful of pitchers who have been able to pitch like this with so little experience. There’s a lot of uncertainty in next year’s rotation, but all signs point towards Rodriguez being a fun part of it.