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One Big Question: Will his knee allow Eduardo Rodriguez to finally break out?

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Is that even the cause of his issues?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Question: Will Eduardo Rodriguez’ knee allow him to take the next step?

I’ve had something of a weird history with Eduardo Rodriguez, or at least with writing about Eduardo Rodriguez. After he first came to Boston in the Andrew Miller trade and thrived with the new organization, I was in the camp with those who felt he was being overrated by Red Sox fans. As the years have gone on, it seems the general consensus has become less optimistic of his future, but for whatever reason I’ve become more intrigued with each passing year. More than anything, I think he’s become my favorite Red Sox player to write about as there are so many paths his career could take and so many factors playing into which path he’ll take. I’m relatively high on him being a successful mid-rotation starter, at least, but anyone has to acknowledge that fairly large range of possibilities for his career, even relative to your typical pitcher.

Perhaps more than anything else, frustration has been the theme of Rodriguez’ major-league career. Even as amateur scouts, which most of us are at best, we can see the potential in his game. The southpaw throws his fastball in the mid-90’s and has shown flashes of impressive secondaries with his changeup and his slider. Even with that repertoire, he hasn’t been able to find consistency at the major-league level and it seems that every time he takes a step forward he follows it up with an immediate step back. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24 (he’ll turn 25 shortly after the regular season begins), so there’s still time. That only provides so much solace through all the frustration, though.

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox Workouts Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, through all of this inconsistency there is a major potential explanation built in with his history of knee issues. On the one hand, a knee injury for a pitcher doesn’t inspire the same knee-jerk panic that an elbow or shoulder issue would, but it can still have a real effect on said pitcher. Rodriguez has had a couple of injuries to his knee, in both 2016 and last year. The first occurred in March of 2016 when he suffered a dislocated kneecap, and the second occurred in June of 2017 when he slipped in the bullpen while warming up prior to his start. He ended up pitching that day, but it was clear that something was not right.

In fact, it being clear that something was not right has been a theme for Rodriguez around these injuries. Inconsistency happens for young pitchers, and it’s possible that everything I’m about to say is a coincidence. That being said, it seems awfully relevant that a lot of the southpaw’s struggles have come around the time he was injured. In 2016, for example, his overall numbers were brought down by the start of his season after he returned from his spring training injury. He pitched to an 8.59 ERA in his first six starts upon returning to the majors that May. Rodriguez did post a better ERA in his rehab appearances that year before the major-league return, though his strikeout numbers certainly didn’t match what you’d expect. After another demotion to the minors and more time separating him from his injury, he pitched to a 3.24 ERA over his last 14 starts that year with 79 strikeouts in 77 innings.

Last season, meanwhile, he got off to a great start to the season. In fact, he was so good that I wrote about him being ready to take “the leap.” He then got hurt in June and in the four starts after he slipped in the bullpen (including his outing that day) he went through his worst stretch of the year in which he pitched to a 7.97 ERA over four starts. He got a bit better when August rolled around and he started to get further from his initial injury, though he also never quite looked as good as he did in the start of the year. This all led to him undergoing surgery this winter that will cause him to miss the start of the year. Hopefully, it can get him right.

Perhaps the biggest issue that has arisen with his knee issues has been with regard to the repertoire I discussed above. I need to note that this is all speculation, but I’m confident in its plausibility. When Rodriguez is at his worst, he becomes a two-pitch pitcher. While his stuff is impressive, it’s not so impressive that he can survive on a consistent basis with just two pitches. During these times he leans heavily on his fastball, and he seems to go in stages between trusting his slider and changeup, almost never trusting them at the same time. Any time he is throwing all three of his pitches with confidence, things go exceedingly well. It’s entirely possible that this is simply growing pains as a pitcher and he’s still learning to grow comfortable with his full repertoire, but it’s also at least possible that his knee is a factor here as well. If Rodriguez is going to utilize all of his pitches, he clearly needs to be comfortable with all of them heading into the game, and if his knee is giving him issues then he could be uncomfortable with one of his secondaries on any given day.

At the end of the day, Rodriguez’ inconsistencies can be explained by a number of different reasons, including a combination of any of them. It seems to me, though, that his knee has at least played a role in holding him back. As Boston looks to build another run to the postseason around its pitching staff, the young lefty is a big part of that. If he can find the consistency that he’s lacked so often through his career, then the Red Sox potentially have one of the deepest and most talented rotations in all of baseball. It’s going to take a little while before we see Rodriguez on the mound, and even longer before we know how effective he’ll be. Hopefully, though, the surgery takes care of the knee issues he’s suffered through and that will be the catalyst to his major-league breakout.