Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Eduardo Rodriguez.
2019 in One Sentence
Eduardo Rodriguez finally showed the consistency we’ve been searching for his entire career, taking over as the top arm in a rotation that was desperate for one in the second half.
Rodriguez was fantastic on a per-start basis in 2019, particularly as the season went on and the Red Sox so desperately needed someone — anyone! — to step up. That wasn’t the most impressive part of his season, though. Instead, that award goes to his workload, something that has never really been a strong point in Rodriguez’ game. The lefty has been hampered by injury throughout his career, never really suffering the major injury but always being banged up to miss at least a handful of starts every season.
In 2019 he did not miss a single start and ended up leading the league with 34 starts. He also got up over 200 innings, with his 203 1⁄3 innings being 66 full innings higher than his previous career-high. Rodriguez has always been a guy who struggles to go far beyond five innings in any given start, but in 2019 he made 21 starts of at least six innings and five more in which he recorded at least 16 outs. It was a different, efficient and durable Rodriguez in 2019. In a year in which Xander Bogaerts rose to superstardom, Rafael Devers broke out and Christian Vázquez did whatever Christian Vázquez did, Rodriguez’ step forward could very well be the most important development for this team in 2019.
For as great as the innings were, the performance was pretty great too. Rodriguez finished this past season with a 3.81 ERA and a 3.86 FIP, neither of which look all that impressive on their face but in the 2019 run environment they were 21 and 14 percent, respectively, better than the league-average. After adjusting for park effects, his run prevention (ERA-) was 21st among qualified pitchers, tied with José Berríos and one spot behind Walker Buehler.
Things were particularly impressive in the second half for Rodriguez, when he really took his game to another level. In that second half he threw 100 2⁄3 innings and pitched to a 2.95 ERA while holding batters to a .239/.321/.343 line for a .292 wOBA. His walk rate actually went up after the All-Star break, but he started limiting solid contact in the second half while also keeping the ball on the ground at a significantly higher rate. Among pitchers with at least 70 second half innings, Rodriguez was seventh in ERA- as well as being seventh in home run rate.
The biggest reason for his success, at least in terms of his repertoire, was the changeup. Rodriguez has one of the better changeups in baseball, and even before he broke out it was a pitch veterans were trying to learn from him. The lefty’s changeup has always been elite, but it was on another level this past year. According to Baseball Savant, he had a whiff rate of 37 percent on the pitch while inducing an expected wOBA of .262 and an actual wOBA of .285. According to FanGraphs, Rodriguez’ changeup was the 17th best changeup in all of baseball among the 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings on the season. It’s the pitch that makes everything work for Rodriguez, and it was working overtime in 2019.
Finally, you can look at a few different splits that show how well Rodriguez pitched this past year. He held righties to a .300 wOBA — largely due to his dominant changeup — which was 24th in baseball among 110 left-handed pitchers with at least 25 innings. The southpaw was also great at Fenway, pitching to a 3.09 ERA while allowing a .274 wOBA. Perhaps most importantly, Rodriguez was good in his second and third times through the order. Among 173 pitchers with at least ten starts in which they made it through the order twice he was 17th (that’s a magic number for him in 2019, it seems) in OPS allowed. Among 162 who got to a third time through at least ten times he was 61st in OPS allowed. That is a marked difference from the Rodriguez of old, and a key to preserving this version of Rodriguez moving forward.
Although it was certainly a positive year on the whole for Rodriguez, there were some numbers that did take a dip in 2019. For example, his strikeout rate actually fell while strikeouts around the league were rising. This, however, seems to be by design. Rather than throwing junk around the strike zone designed to get swings and misses but also forcing more pitches in every start, the lefty started to pound the zone. It led to more contact and fewer strikeouts, but also led to deeper starts and more production overall. In fantasy terms it wasn’t ideal, I guess, but this wasn’t really a negative for Rodriguez.
What actually was a negative for the lefty was the way he started his season. Although this will be known as a positive season for Rodriguez it didn’t always appear that way. Over the first month of the season he had pitched to a 6.19 ERA and through ten starts he was still sitting at a 5.43 ERA. In fact, in six of those first ten starts he had allowed at least four runs. Things turned around very quickly from there, but essentially a third of his season was below-average.
There’s also the fact that Rodriguez actually allowed a bunch of hits this year. The .317 batting average on balls in play was the highest he’d allowed in his career. Now, his batted ball profile didn’t change much, so it’s fair to wonder how much of this was on him. Some of it was probably luck, and it’s worth noting that the Red Sox didn’t have a great infield defense. While they were in the middle of the pack in BABIP on ground balls, they should have been better as their pitchers induced one of the highest soft-hit rates on grounders as well as one of the lowest hard-hit rates.
The Big Question
Is Eduardo Rodriguez going to finally trust his stuff?
Yes. As we discussed above, Rodriguez finally started to throw his best pitches in the zone and while it resulted in fewer strikeouts it also led to an increase in innings and overall productivity.
In this offseason with so much potential for major change on this roster, Rodriguez is one of the few who seems totally safe from the trade market. He is the lone relatively young starting pitcher and suddenly the most durable who is currently on the roster. That says more about the rotation than Rodriguez, but he’s earned a chance to make good on this breakout. Depending on what happens with contracts this winter, I would also add that the lefty is a solid extension candidate, though if it comes it likely won’t be until late in the offseason.