The Red Sox’s 5–1 loss to the division-leading Orioles on June 16th led fans to impugn the stability and cohesion of the Boston’s current starting rotation. In particular, Eduardo Rodriguez’ underwhelming 4+ innings of work in combination with his aggregate 6.97 ERA has Red Sox Nation questioning the impressive rookie season that had analysts and scouts calling E-Rod the next cornerstone of the Sox’ ever-erratic platoon of starters.
An equally perplexing narrative was Clay Buchholz’ convincing three-inning, two-hit shutout of the Orioles in relief for Rodriguez that eventually convinced John Farrell to put the 31-year-old back in the rotation. Both E-Rod and Buchholz have struggled immensely with ball-control and location. But what exactly does that entail, how is this corrected, and should we even consider the possibility that the Rodriguez of 2015 was just a hoax?
While some link E-Rod’s severe departure from his past performance with a pitch-tipping habit, Rodriguez understands that his control problems are deeper. It stems from a location complication, hindering his ability to "go to the outside corner" with his fastball, which was referred to a year ago by former Toronto utility man Mark DeRosa on MLB Central as a pitch that "blows away every left handed hitter [he] sees."
That's not what I saw. It was as he raises his hands https://t.co/QaVpL2bqpR— Lou Merloni (@LouMerloni) June 17, 2016
L is FB/cutter. R is change. Glove level on change. If I see the thumb of his glove? Not a change @mattdolloff pic.twitter.com/2JLRpJSsw9— Lou Merloni (@LouMerloni) June 17, 2016
Citing E-Rod’s struggles as "control issues," is a pitching colloquialism that MLB fans have heard frequently, but find ambiguous or maybe even a bit mystifying. For pitchers, there actually are two different types of "control issues": physiological and psychological. Some baseball theorists either cite one type or the other, but it makes rational sense that one might be a direct cause of the other.
The mechanics behind hurling strikes from a five-ounce baseball can be represented by a basic diagram involving a circle and its respective tangent. The key is for the throwing arm to emulate the motion represented in the diagram.
The path of the ball is illustrated by the angle created by points A and B (along with any movement from spin put on the pitch), and while maintaining the proper trajectory, a pitcher must concentrate on his leg motion, elbow extension, and general balance extending from the head to the torso, all at the same time. This cohesion and extreme multi-tasking that is expected of a pitcher’s body is defined as proprioception. For a modern-day hurler, proprioception is everything.
In theory, for a dominant pitcher to produce as many accurate strikes as possible –– that find their desired location –– they need to nail their exact proprioception balance on each pitch. With catalysts such as an injury or even fatigue, a piece in the puzzle falters which in turn leads to a loss of "control."
Psychological factors, or a case of "the yips" can be galvanized by subconscious issues (i.e. John Lackey back in 2011), or from a lack of confidence stemming from previous unsuccessful outings.
For Rodriguez, it will be about correcting the physiological hiccups to prevent any potential impeding psychological setbacks. According to pitching coach Carl Willis, E-Rod’s difficulties locating derive from a change in his delivery.
The 23-year old South Paw cites that his altered release was induced by on-going apprehension regarding his previously injured right knee. It’s easy to believe that his premature transition back into the rotation from injury is what left Rodriguez compensating his original mechanics. But, since he has been able to reach his 95 MPH fastball, the issue isn’t whether or not E-Rod’s knee is healthy enough to fuel his velocity. It’s whether or not he trusts that knee enough to go through his usual proprioception routine.
We see the first difference in Rodriguez’ form when he is receiving pitch signals. His toes have turned toward first base instead of being positioned perpendicular to the catcher. Additionally, E-Rod’s drop step has become more pronounced in 2016, and could very well be putting him off- balance. The most apparent change in his delivery has been how much height his previously injured right knee receives when he begins his leg lift. When watching Rodriguez closely in 2015, what was able to deceive hitters was how powerful and swift his leg lifting motion appeared.
Above are highlights from Rodriguez’ June 30th outing against Toronto last season.
Below is Adam Jones’ two-run homer from the Sox 5–1 loss last thursday.
And then there’s Rodriguez’ veteran teammate Buchholz, who even long-removed from his most recent injury is still always making physiological adjustments.
"All I can do is go out, try to get better every day, do the work in between — whether it’s in the bullpen for me to get up and go in the game, do it to the best of my abilities," the right hander said.
Last Thursday against Baltimore, the 31 year old showed substantial promise. It was his execution of his fastball and change-up in a new and improved sequence. Giving Buchholz time to work on his own proprioception on a less public stage allowed for his attention to go to his mechanics rather than to the general public. Maybe "my crazy idea" to put the ailing Buchholz into the bullpen was the prescription he needed.
Buchholz’ scheduled start on Tuesday against Chris Sale and the Chicago White Sox will also provide E-Rod with the prescription he needs, and that’s time. The lefty’s start was pushed back so that he could add another bullpen session focusing on resurrecting his original delivery.
There is a clear misunderstanding when it comes to the successes and misfortunes of starting pitchers. It is inconceivable to expect a major league hurler to execute what geometry has instructed on every single pitch. The uninformed fans and media simply abandon not only their respect for the pitcher, but avoid the desire to understand the reason for the poor performance. We must realize that pitching is not only a science, but also an art, and artists are always making adjustments to their craft.
Before we jump to conclusions suggesting that it is imperative for Dave Dombrowski to trade for a starter at this second, let’s see how the last two pieces of this rotation puzzle fare after being given the chance to make their necessary adjustments.