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Eduardo Rodriguez was ready to break out in 2017, and he starts a new quest today

It’s time to get excited about the young lefty

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Today is an exciting day for the Red Sox, even putting aside the possibility of an eight-game win streak. On Sunday, Boston will get Eduardo Rodriguez — recovering from offseason knee surgery — back on the mound as they look to make their rotation whole again. With the way the 2018 season has started, it doesn’t look like the Red Sox need a boost in their rotation, though it goes without saying that every team in baseball will take an upgrade in talent wherever and whenever they can get it. Rodriguez represents a significant talent upgrade, even if the results he’s posted over his career look closer to pedestrian than ace-like. We know to look beyond just simple results, however, and even if the southpaw is (probably) never going to quite reach ace status in this league, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’s ready to take a real step forward in the coming year. In fact, he was starting along that road last year before he went down with his injury.

Even with that strong run to start 2017, Rodriguez’ career numbers aren’t really anything to write home about. Over parts of three seasons he has made 65 starts (plus one relief appearance) and in that time he has pitched to a 4.23 ERA, good for a 105 ERA+. He’s also made at least 20 starts in each of those three seasons, and his single-season ERA’s have been 3.85, 4.71 and 4.19. That’s certainly not bad, but it also doesn’t scream breakout candidate. Watching his major-league career unfold has been frustrating to say the least, as Rodriguez just hasn’t been able to find consistency. It’s been a constant cycle of one step forward, one step back. From the outside, it’s hard to know how much of that is injury, but whatever the reasons may be the fact remains that he hasn’t been able to take that step forward towards the potential he showed when he was first acquired by the club as a minor leaguer. That’s not to downplay any excitement around his return, as I am as excited as anyone.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Just looking at his 2017 season on its face, it was not a particularly stellar year for Rodriguez by any stretch. He pitched to that aforementioned 4.19 ERA and his FIP wasn’t much better, coming in at 3.91 due to a walk rate above three per nine innings and his allowing 19 home runs over 24 starts. That doesn’t really do the season justice, though, and as they say in the opening sequence of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” it’s a little more nuanced than that. In fact, there’s a solid argument for 2017 being the most encouraging year in Rodriguez’ young career.

When you dig a little deeper into that last season, you’ll find that the lefty experienced a tale of two, or maybe even three, seasons. You can see a fairly clear distinction in his performance before and after he suffered his knee injury. As you may recall, Rodriguez hurt his knee warming up before a start in Baltimore. He still made that start and was horrible that day, but before that outing he had ten starts under his belt and in that time he pitched to a 2.77 ERA while holding opponents to a .652 OPS. He’d then go on to struggle for another ten starts (including that one in Baltimore before he hit the disabled list) before starting to get back on track at the end of the year with a 3.33 ERA over his final five starts. It was a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least, but by the end of the year Rodriguez had posted a 3.61 DRA, which is Baseball Prospectus’ all-encompassing pitching stat. After adjusting for park effects, he was 23 percent better than league-average by that metric and on par with pitchers like Marcus Stroman and Robbie Ray.

These are all very good signs that paint a better picture of his 2017 than his overall numbers do. While I said above that we can’t tell how much of the inconsistency — both last year and over his career — is due to the knee injuries, it’s clear that it had some effect. Christopher Smith of Masslive talked to Rodriguez about his impending return to the mound, and this quote in particular stood out.

“The biggest difference for me is I’m not thinking anymore (about) my knee, like pitching scared and all that. Just pitch”

Although you always have to take an athlete’s quotes with a grain of salt, this certainly lends some credence to the idea that the lefty had his knee injury on the back of his mind after returning from the disabled list last year. If this means there’s a better chance of him looking like he did pre-injury, that’s a huge confidence-booster for the Red Sox.

Since we’re not, ya know, Nostradamus, there’s no way of knowing what to expect in 2018, much less in his first start back on the mound. The good news is that it’s far too early to look at Rodriguez as someone who just is what he is. He’s a 25-year-old who struck out almost ten batters per nine innings last year and has shown flashes of brilliance. He needs to work on the consistency of his command, and he needs to have more starts in which he trusts all three of his pitches enough to at least mix up his arsenal and keep hitters on balance. Judging by the way he’s talking, and by his numbers at the start of last year, part of his issue may have been the result of last year’s knee injury and the issues he’s had with it before. After undergoing the surgery to repair said knee over the offseason, Rodriguez appears as confident as ever that he can just go out and pitch, and that’s a very exciting proposition for Red Sox fans.