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Eduardo Rodriguez and the mythical Next Step

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Maybe it’s time to stop focusing so much on what he can be

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Eduardo Rodriguez is, in this writer’s opinion, the most interesting player in the Red Sox rotation, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close. No, he’s obviously not the dominant ace that Chris Sale is. Nor is he David Price, who both has shown he can be an ace and has developed an adversarial relationship with the media. He’s not Rick Porcello, whose performance has ranged from Cy Young-worthy to Pawtucket-worthy. He’s not Steven Wright, who throws the most awe-inspiring and mythical pitch in the game. What Rodriguez is is a young pitcher with potential, and frankly that’s not something we’ve had as Red Sox fans in recent years. Given the team’s oft-publicized struggles in developing homegrown pitching, it’s clear that we don’t really know how to react to a pitcher with this kind of potential.

From Rodriguez, there’s no reason for us not to expect the world, or at least have hope for it. No, I don’t think any reasonable person is expecting Clayton Kershaw, a perennial All-Star and Cy Young candidate. However, most see the stuff and have heard so much about his potential that they envision a pitcher who can be placed near the top of a playoff rotation, or at least should be able to be placed there. It’s natural, and it’s led to the entire narrative around Rodriguez to be focused on that elusive “next step” that needs to be taken by the southpaw to reach that point.

To be fair, I have been a part of this as well. For many of us, myself included, the discussion around the 25-year-old has been less about what he’s done and more about what he should be able to do. I’m not going to sit here and say we shouldn’t focus at all on what he can be and hope that he can reach that point. It’s still important for the organization, particularly because of the aforementioned struggles in developing pitchers. However, we all should probably be taking more time to appreciate who he is, and if this is all he is, that’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s our old fearless leader, Ben Buchanan, who had me thinking about this in the first place. A little over a week ago, he did a tweet on this very subject, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

As Ben notes in a later tweet, as much as we are frustrated by what we imagine he can be, the fact of the matter is that he’s pitched like a midrotation arm while serving as a number four or five starter for essentially his entire career. That’s all while dealing with constant injuries as well, which isn’t necessarily a great sign for the future but makes his numbers more impressive.

All told, he’s been one of the better pitchers in the game for two years in a row on a rate basis. By ERA, after adjusting for park, he ranks 44th among 122 pitchers with at least 150 innings between 2017 and 2018. He’s right around Pomeranz and Cole Hamels on the leaderboard. By FIP, he ranks 32nd, tied with Jose Quintana and ahead of guys like Marcus Stroman, Sonny Gray and Carlos Martinez. DRA doesn’t allow me to combine seasons, but this year Rodriguez is 21st among 118 pitches with at least 50 innings and last year he was 46th among 134 with at least 100 innings. All of that is to say that he has been very clearly above-average by whatever metric you prefer.

Of course, amid all of this success there are issues for Rodriguez that can be hard to put aside even for a minute in order to focus on the positives. The efficiency can be so frustrating to watch. Boston’s young lefty always seems to be working the edges of the zone and nibbling around hitters when he has the stuff to challenge anyone that steps into the box against him. This tendency has led to countless short outings and high pitch counts. For as great as his rate metrics have been, his ceiling is limited as long as he fails to go deep into games.

There’s also the matter of trusting his stuff and his full arsenal. Rodriguez seems to fall into traps where he becomes a two-pitch pitcher, ditching either his slider or his changeup on any given night. It helps contribute to the high pitch counts as the higher level of predictability leads to more foul balls and long at bats while also leading to more hard contact. He has the stuff to mix his pitches as well as everyone, but he hasn’t done it yet.

We all know the issues, though, and they overshadow what he’s already become. As Ben said above, even if Rodriguez doesn’t take the next step he has already proven to be one of the better pitchers in the game and an extremely useful piece for a team with playoff hopes. It’s only natural that we look at what can be and arguably what should be for Rodriguez as one of the few young pitchers to come to the Red Sox rotation in recent years. There’s no reason we can’t continue to do so, too. That being said, while we’re waiting for the next step it wouldn’t hurt to also take some time to appreciate that Rodriguez already is extremely important to this team and has already turned into an incredibly useful pitcher.