After Thursday’s win over the Blue Jays, I found myself watching the NESN postgame, which is a thing I don’t normally find myself doing. It’s nothing against the NESN crew, but I generally go to bed seconds after the last out. But last night, I both wanted to hear Alex Cora’s update on Eduardo Núñez (his injury doesn’t seem too serious) while also being too lazy to get up and grab the controller. So, I watched the studio segment in which they talked about Eduardo Rodriguez. Given the lefty had just made a start, it made sense to discuss him. What didn’t make much sense was questioning whether or not he’d be part of the playoff rotation. Of course he’s going to be part of the playoff rotation. In fact, his presence on the mound could be the defining X-Factor determining how far this Red Sox team can go in October.
X-Factor is a term that can mean a lot of different things to different people, but to me it’s the player or players for whom there is a wide range of possible outcomes and where the actual production lands is paramount to a team’s success. At least, I think that’s the most basic definition of the term. Predicting X-Factors is generally a fool’s errand, but I think Rodriguez fits well.
Assuming the team rolls with a four-man rotation, which is how teams generally approach all three round of the postseason, Boston has two somewhat known quantities already. At least, they are known quantities insofar as any pitcher can be a known quantity in a one-game situation. Chris Sale is Chris Sale until he proves otherwise. David Price has his postseason history, of course, but he’s looked incredible this year with no signs of slowing down. Rick Porcello is not going to be great and could very well give up some homers. He’s certainly on the lower end of the spectrum among Red Sox starters, though he has stepped up against big competition. Porcello isn’t a known quantity, and if we’re being honest he probably justifiably has relatively low expectations.
Then, there’s Rodriguez, who could go in the largest number of possible directions. On the spectrum from Sale/Price to Porcello and even below that, Rodriguez could land at any spot and it wouldn’t be a total shock. Now, he’s generally been very good this year, but there have been some rough outings over the course of the season, including a recent one against the Astros. Furthermore, he is only recently returning from a leg injury, and we have enough history on the lefty to know he has trouble coming back with full confidence from these events. To be fair, he has said that this time is different, and two of his three starts since returning would support that. Still, the sample is small enough where the worry is legitimate even if it’s not overwhelming.
In evaluating Rodriguez’ potential for postseason success, there is one major factor that I think plays heavily in his favor, and that’s the expectation from a starting pitcher. We all know that the playoffs are an entirely different game than the regular season, with shorter leashes and longer outings for the bullpen. That probably won’t be the Red Sox’ plan, at least with Sale and Price, but it plays into Rodriguez’ hands. Although the lefty has been more efficient than ever this year, there are still points where he gets into trouble and his pitch count gets higher than it needs to be. That can be frustrating in the regular season, but it isn’t really a concern in the postseason. Getting five strong innings from a back-half-of-the-rotation starter in October is perfectly fine, and it’s something that Rodriguez has excelled at in the past. Every at bat is a grind in these short series, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the inefficiency come back, but in this situation it can be afforded for him to go through that if his normal strikeout stuff and general success comes with it.
On the other hand, there is a major factor playing against Rodriguez and that is the right-handedness of the competition. Both Sale and Price have proven time and again that they can succeed against anyone, and in for Price in particular his changeup has been so good that he should be fine against righties. Rodriguez recently got shelled by the Astros, and their right-handed star power was a major part of that. Add in Yankees hitters like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge as well as someone like Khris Davis in Oakland and Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor (both of whom are switch hitters who are better or the same against lefties than rights), Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson for Cleveland, and there is a ton of talent on that side of the plate in the AL. Now, Rodriguez doesn’t have huge splits this year and he has the stuff to counteract the platoon disadvantage, but we know he can get into trouble with properly utilizing his full arsenal. That could spell trouble against these kinds of hitters.
Ultimately, I think Rodriguez has given us more reason to be confident than worried this season and before the injury he really had seemed to take the leap. He’s been great against a couple of rebuilding lineups since coming back, with one blemish against a playoff team. That’s not a sign of doom, of course, but it’s worth considering. At his best, Rodriguez is closer to the top tier than the mid-tier for pitching, and if the Red Sox can get his full potential — or at least something close to it — in October, that could be the biggest factor behind a deep run.