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One Big Question: When will Eduardo Rodriguez start to trust his stuff?

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The talent is there, but he needs to refine his approach.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Question: Is Eduardo Rodriguez going to finally trust his stuff?

I’ve definitely mentioned this at least a few times in the past, but as someone who writes about the Red Sox on a regular basis Eduardo Rodriguez is one of my favorite players on the team. He is just a fascinating pitcher with constantly evolving questions, undeniable talent and seemingly never-ending quests for growth. As a fan, however, he is among the most frustrating players on the team. We know is a good pitcher, and all things considered he’s been successful in the early parts of his career. He’s certainly worthy of his rotation spot on a very good team. Even with those results, though, it’s impossible to watch him and not think about how much better he can, and probably should, be.

There’s just clearly another level to his game that the southpaw just hasn’t been able to reach to this point. Obviously this is something we’ve been saying about him for a few years now, which just adds to the frustration. It can get tiring as a fan to continue waiting for the so-called “leap”. At a certain point, a player simply is what he has shown himself to be, and potential becomes less and less attainable the longer a player goes without reaching it. I wouldn’t say the 25-year-old (he’ll be 26 shortly after Opening Day) has gotten to that point just yet, but he’s probably closer than we want to admit. If he’s going to get to that next level, he simply needs to trust the stuff he possesses.

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Like I said at the start, Rodriguez has been good in his career and the lefty is coming off the best season of his career. In 2018 he made 27 appearances (23 starts) for the Red Sox, missing a big chunk of the second half due to injury. Over 129 23 innings of work, he pitched to a solid 3.82 ERA (85 ERA-), 3.65 FIP (87 FIP-) and a 3.77 DRA (84 DRA-). In other words, he was well above-average in a three of these metrics. Among the 116 pitchers with at least 120 innings last year, he ranked 35th, 30th and 39th, respectively, in those three park-adjusted categories. The Red Sox will take that from a guy who is either their fourth or fifth starter, depending on how you view someone like Rick Porcello.

The reason behind the success he’s had to this point is pretty clear. He has damn good stuff, and not in the way Joe Kelly had good stuff a few years ago. Rodriguez misses bats and when he’s really on you see easily why people see the ceiling they say he has. He’s progressively tallied higher and higher strikeout rates over his career, culminating in a 26.4 percent rate in 2018. When you see the stuff in action, it’s not hard to see how it works so well. The lefty works off a big, mid-90s fastball and pairs it with a nasty changeup and a cutter that he started working in a lot more in 2018. All of these pitches can get outs, with the changeup being easily the most impressive pitch.

With all of those positives, it’s easy to wonder why he isn’t more consistent and why he isn’t an even bigger part of this rotation. The answer is simple, as we all know. Rodriguez is so frustrating because he spends so much of his time nibbling around the edges of the strike zone. That leads to a few more walks than you’d like — his 8.1 percent walk rate in 2018 certainly isn’t terrible, but it could be better — and more importantly it leads to high pitch counts and short outings. In 2018, seven of his 23 starts lasted five or fewer innings with only nine lasting at least six and none getting through seven. Furthermore, the lefty reached full counts in a little over 19 percent of his at bats in 2018, compared to a rate just under 14 percent among all American League pitchers.

All of this led to Alex Cora calling out the lefty following his most recent spring training outing. Rodriguez, judging by the box score, did fine in this game, but Cora shared the same frustration as many of us. The manager expressed disappointment that Rodriguez still isn’t using his stuff to attack opponents, and indicated that it’s time for him to “step up.” It’s not the first time Cora has tried to publicly motivate the lefty either, sharing similar sentiments towards the end of last year. To Rodriguez’s credit, he responded well to the criticism. Now, it’s time for him to respond well on the diamond.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Four Photo by Gary A. Vasquez - Pool/Getty Images

As Cora alludes to, the solution to the efficiency woes are pretty simple: Attack hitters. The manager touches on all of this, but it’s really amazing that he doesn’t attack more. As we talked about above, Rodriguez has good enough stuff to get away with attacking his opponents. Among the 147 pitchers with at least 1500 pitches thrown in 2018, the Red Sox lefty ranked 39th in swinging strike rate. Despite the stuff, Rodriguez was all the way down at 118th in zone rate. You can succeed without hitting the zone — Patrick Corbin was dead last in zone rate last year and he just signed a $140 million contract — but you need hitters to swing at the bad pitches. Rodriguez was towards the middle of the pack in O_Swing rate last year. When batters aren’t chasing as much as you’d like, you need to come back to them and challenge them with strikes to get them back in the swinging mindset.

At this point, the task is clear and everyone is aware of it. Rodriguez needs to trust his stuff, attack hitters and make them beat him. There will be times he’ll be beaten, but he has enough talent that he’ll win the battle more than often enough. He knows what he needs to do, and he has the infrastructure in place with his coaching staff and the veterans with him in the staff to get the adjustment made. If he can make it, he can take the next step in his career and take an already good Red Sox rotation to another level. But we’ve been saying this for years, now. The time is now for Rodriguez to finally make good on that potential.