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On Eduardo Rodriguez’s disappointing start

The Red Sox needed Eduardo Rodriguez back in the rotation, and now they need him to improve.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Although there were plenty of setbacks and delays to his eventual return, there was plenty of justified excitement for Eduardo Rodriguez’s first start after hurting his knee in spring training. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the back of the rotation was in desperate need for reinforcements, with Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly and Henry Owens all flaming out seemingly simultaneously. Of course, Rodriguez wasn’t exactly a beacon of consistency in 2015 — particularly during his pitch-tipping phase — but he showed enough promise to guarantee him a rotation spot on a roster which desperately needed a pitcher to step up. Unfortunately, the early returns on Rodriguez’...well, return...haven’t been so great.

This is the part where I acknowledge that we’re dealing with a small sample of just three starts and a little over 16 innings of work. With that caveat, it’s hard to call his numbers thus far anything but concerning. Rodriguez was solid if unspectacular in his first start back against the Orioles, but his last two outings have been outright bad. To be fair, one of those came against the Blue Jays’ lineup that is capable of destruction any day. However, his last bad outing came against the Twins this past weekend, and they are among the worst lineups in the league.

You can choose whatever metric you like, it's not going to look good. Rodriguez has pitched to a 6.06 ERA, a 7.49 FIP, a 5.58 DRA and a 125 cFIP. Again, this is over a 16-inning sample, so these numbers are far from stabilized, but they also paint a distressing picture. Even worse is the fact that he hasn’t had success in any of the three major areas — strikeouts, walks and ground balls. The first two rates are identical — 10 percent, a poor figure for either department — and he has a ground ball rate of just 34 percent.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kim Klement

As one might expect, all three of these issues are at least tangentially related. The first thing that jumps out about Rodriguez’s season is a major drop in velocity. His fastball is clocking in a full mile per hour slower than his 94.8 mph average in 2015, though it’s worth mentioning that number ticked back up in his latest outing. Despite that refreshing last bit of news, the results have still lacked in a major way. That heater is inducing whiffs on under eight percent of swings and ground balls on just 25 percent of batted balls. For context, last year — when he still wasn’t great, but was acceptable — that fastball induced whiffs on 14 percent of swings and grounders on 44 percent of batted balls.

Then, there’s his slider. Although the breaking ball isn’t Rodriguez’s bread and butter, it is arguably the lefty’s most important pitch. When he was at his best in 2015 (mostly early in his season), he was throwing the slider a shade over 10 percent of the time, and it was effective much more often than it wasn’t. At his peak, he was getting swings on the pitch at least half the time. Of course, since breaking balls often break out of the zone, simply getting a swing is half the battle. The results did follow a similar pattern, as the pitch induced more whiffs earlier in the year when he was more effective.

This year, he’s almost completely abandoned his slider. On the young season, Rodriguez is throwing the pitch less than five percent of the time. It is worth nothing that things took a change for the better in his last outing yet again, as he threw the pitch more regularly. Unfortunately, the swing rate — just 16 percent on the year and 22 percent in his last outing — hasn’t caught up, nor has the whiff rate. In fact, the slider hasn’t induced a single whiff yet this year. That, combined with his poor fastball performance, is the main factor behind his lack of strikeouts.

The ground balls get back to the fastball again, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he throws the pitch nearly two-thirds of the time. The other pitch giving him trouble here is his changeup. About half of the batted balls off Rodriguez’s changeup registered as ground balls in 2015, under a quarter of them have done the same in 2016. In fact, he hasn’t induced a single grounder on the pitch in either of his last two outings. The odd thing is there is no discernible difference with the pitch this season in terms of velocity, placement or movement. The hope should be that this is just strange, small sample size noise.

Finally, on top of all these issues, Rodriguez is also having unprecedented — for him, at least — trouble finding the strike zone. His 10 percent walk rate certainly isn’t disastrous, but it’s safely worse than average and is especially harmful to a pitcher who’s shown trouble racking up high strikeout numbers in the majors. After hitting the zone almost exactly 50 percent of the time in 2015, per Baseball Prospectus, that rate is all the way down to 45 percent this season.

Specifically, Rodriguez is missing up in the zone. Not only is this leading to the higher walk totals, but also the lack of ground balls.

As you can see, all of these issues are connected and they are all causes for concern. With that being said, it’s worth mentioning one more time that we’re talking about three starts after missing all of spring training. Some rust was to be expected, and he’s certainly shown some. The Red Sox need him to get back soon to himself soon, though, and that involves sharpening all three of his big pitches. We haven’t reached the point of panic, but with a few more starts like we’ve seen, it could be time.