I’ve had something of a roller coaster relationship with Eduardo Rodriguez since he came over to Boston. For a long time, I was lower on the young lefty than most. I thought he was set to be a solid major-league starter, but thought those for calling for him to be destined for the top of a rotation were overblowing his case a bit. Eventually, the general expectations came down a bit, and I started to get a little higher on him. I never quite thought he was going to be an ace, but at some point around last September I had come around. I had seen the light. Among all the Red Sox pitchers — above even Chris Sale — Rodriguez was the one I was most excited to see. If he could build off what he did towards the end of last year, the Red Sox would have the third pitcher they needed in David Price’s absence.
Through the first month of the year and Rodriguez’ first four starts (plus one relief appearance), they have gotten the high-end of production from the former Oriole prospect, even if it hasn’t really seemed like it. He hasn’t been great in every start, but his last time out was indicative of the guy he can be. Throwing against the Cubs, arguably the best lineup in baseball, he allowed just one run in six innings while striking out nine. It was a masterclass of pitching.
After that outstanding start, Rodriguez is suddenly looking like he’s ready to break out. A couple of years ago, Baseball Prospectus introduced DRA, which along with cFIP has quickly become my go-to pitching metric. The linked post explains the metric if you’re unfamiliar. By DRA, Rodriguez has been incredible so far this year. His 1.11 DRA trails only Sale and Dallas Keuchel among the 132 pitchers with 20 innings., who are the two early favorites for the American League Cy Young. Of course, DRA only describes what has happened, and isn’t always predictive, particularly in small samples such as this. That’s where cFIP comes in, and by that metric Rodriguez has been 23 percent better than average and his 77 cFIP is the seventh-best among that same group. (Sale is number one, of course.)
Looking at the individual aspects of his season, it’s clear that the strikeouts are the most important part of Rodriguez’ early-season success. After his nine-strikeout outing last time out, he is up to 12 strikeouts per nine innings, almost four strikeouts more than his rate last year. While he’s almost certainly not going to keep up this pace, it’s worth noting that he is inducing whiffs on 38 percent of swings, per Baseball Prospectus. Among the 145 pitchers who have thrown at least 250 pitches, Rodriguez’ swinging strike rate ranks third. He is actually one spot ahead of Sale, and trails only Jacob deGrom and Chris Devenski.
The biggest reason for his success has been his changeup, which can only be described by the act of kissing your fingers like a chef. He’s leaned heavily on the pitch in 2017, and has been rewarded. Almost 27 percent of the time he throws the pitch, it results in a whiff. For some context, the rate on Rodriguez’ fastball this year is a little under 12 percent, and the rate for his changeup last year was 20 percent. It’s on a different level this year.
Another interesting aspect from Rodriguez has been his flyball approach. He was never really a groundball pitcher, but he’s taking it to a new extreme this year. Per BP, his groundball rate is currently just 26 percent, down from 33 percent last year and the lowest rate in baseball for pitchers with at least 20 innings. With the sample being so small, it’s probably not worth reading too much into the actual rate, by the flyball tendency is interesting. While it can lead to home runs — and it has, as he’s allowed four dingers in four starts — it also leads to fewer hits when it stays in the yard. That’s true for any pitcher, and it’s extra true for a pitcher that gets in throw in front of Boston’s outfield defense. Ground balls usually seem better, but the fly balls aren’t the worst idea for Rodriguez.
While this season has certainly been a step in the right direction for the 24-year-old, there are still some things to work on. For his entire career I’ve harped on his inability to use his whole arsenal, and that’s happening again this year. While the changeup has been phenomenal, he hasn’t had any confidence in his slider. He’s thrown it at least ten percent of the time in just two outings this year, and one of them was the one-inning relief stint he threw in Toronto. The other outing was his first of the year against Detroit, which was his worst start of the season by a large margin. It’s hard to succeed as a starter in this league with just two pitches. As long as the changeup is this effective, it shouldn’t be an issue. There will be days the offspeed stuff doesn’t work, though, and he really needs that third pitch available to pick him up.
On top of that, he’s still struggling with control. Even after walking just two against the Cubs, Rodriguez is still walking more than five batters per nine innings. Obviously, simply allowing free base runners is bad enough. It’s not just the runners that hurt, though. It’s just a continuation of Rodriguez being too inefficient. He has yet to make it more than six innings this year. In fact, he didn’t do it at all last year, either. If he’s truly going to take the next step, he needs to make it deeper into games.
I’m not totally all-in on Rodriguez quite yet, as there is still improvement to be made. He’s still not consistent with all three pitches, and he’s still too inefficient. With that being said, he’s been quite strong to start the season. If there’s one player on the roster — pitcher or position player — that looks poised to really breakout this year, I’d argue it’s Rodriguez. With his changeup working the way it is, he’s just a small adjustment or two away from making the leap.