One of the best parts of the 2019 season was rooting for Eduardo Rodriguez to get to 20 wins. Although wins are not an effective way to evaluate pitching performance, the 20-win plateau still has some magic. The fact that Rodriguez was threatening to reach it late last year isn’t the best proof that he was having a career year but it certainly didn’t hurt. Rodriguez ultimately fell short, finishing 19-6 overall, but following that chase was exhilarating.
That exhilaration was amplified because Rodriguez may be a veteran at this point but it still feels like we’re waiting to figure out just who he is. He has produced relatively positive work on the mound in his five years in Boston. However, after the progress he showed last season and because he will turn 27 this year, this may be the final time we can ponder what could be instead of accepting what is.
To get a feel for what the next stage of his career may look like, I thought it would be helpful to look at the career trajectories of pitchers with whom he shares some commonalities. Fortunately, some of that work has already been done thanks to Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores. Below I’ll be taking a look at the five pitchers who match up the best with Rodriguez at 26 years old and who logged at least one more season after their age 26 season to get a sense of what this type of early career path might lead to.
Rodriguez’s career so far matches up best with what Miller had done by the time he finished his age 26 season in 2003. The right-hander showed great deal of promise with the Houston Astros after breaking onto the scene in 1999. By the end of 2003, he had compiled 679 1⁄3 innings pitched and a 3.93 ERA which matched his xFIP in that time. For comparison, Rodriguez is at 699 innings with a 4.18 xFIP. Miller had been particularly effective in 2001 and 2002 when he posted sub 3.50 ERAs and ERA+ of more than 130 in back-to-back seasons. He slipped a bit in 2003, with his ERA jumping to 4.13, but he was still an above average starter and he made a career-high 33 starts.
Miller got hurt and missed most of the second half of the next season, but he still did well for himself before that, boosting his ERA+ back up to 129 although some of his underlying metrics were a bit worrisome. As readers of this site might remember, those worries didn’t stop the Red Sox from bringing him on for the 2005 season, but maybe they should have. Miller posted a 4.95 ERA across 91 innings and then spent the next and final two seasons of his career struggling to stay on the mound with the Chicago Cubs.
For as similar as they may be based on Baseball-Reference’s reckoning, Rodriguez and Miller do have some major differences with how they pitched. For example, Rodriguez has been much more prolific when it comes to striking batters out, notching 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings in his career compared with a mark of 7.75 from Miller at the same age. On the flip side, even though Rodriguez has posted three-straight seasons with an ERA+ of more than 100, he’s never hit the heights that Miller reached.
The ultimate takeaway from looking at Miller’s career is one that doesn’t take a whole lot of statistical analysis. Once he got hurt, he just wasn’t the same, and that can happen to just about anyone.
Harrison’s age 26 season has some obvious parallels with Rodriguez’s. It was also his fifth season in the league and was a breakout of sorts. Just like Rodriguez, Harrison came close to 20 wins (18-11) and was among the top 10 in American League Cy Young voting. That 2012 campaign was a nice follow-up to his 2011 season when he went 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA. However, before those years, Harrison had really struggled to find his footing, and in 2010 was used far more often as a reliever than as a starter. That contrasts with the consistency Rodriguez has shown as does the fact that Harrison got outs much differently than Rodriguez, relying much less on strikeouts. Still, their overall bodies of work match up to a degree at this point.
Unfortunately for Harrison, that 2012 season was his peak as injuries robbed him of his effectiveness and opportunities. He would make nine appearances combined over the next three years before his career ended. Once again, we are faced with the lesson that even pitchers with promise can’t overcome bad luck on the health front.
The former St. Louis Cardinals’ starter was one of the most promising young hurlers in the game when he had an impressive yet short first season in 2013, posting a 2.78 ERA across 15 appearances, including nine starts. He kept his legend growing in the years that followed and even made an All-Star team in 2015 when he went 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA. The next season went in a different direction, but he built himself back up and had an exceptional 2018 before injuries got in the way (121 ERA+ in 15 starts), thus ending his age 26 season with uncertainty lingering.
We haven’t seen much beyond the age 26 season from Wacha. H’es only had one year, which wasn’t great, with his 5.61 mark in fielding independent pitching last season the worst number he has ever produced. That signaled the end of his time with the Cardinals. Now pitching with the Mets, we’ll have to see what the future holds.
As for what this means for Rodriguez, these two pitchers have had opposite trajectories even if they ended up in similar spots. Wacha started strong and has slowed to a degree while Rodriguez has been doing his best work in the most recent past. Rodriguez also isn’t recovering from an injury after his age 26 season whereas Wacha was, so there is more reason to be optimistic.
We know Tillman pretty well since he spent the first 10 years of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. The right-hander has faced the Red Sox 22 times and has actually done fairly well (3.43 ERA across 118 innings). After making his debut in 2009, times were tough for Tillman, as he produced three-straight seasons with ERAs of more than five, but something clicked in 2012 and for the next three seasons he was a reliable starter if not one of the better ones in the American League. He made the All Star team in 2013 and, like Rodriguez, led the league in starts during his age 26 season in 2014. When you combine it all together, you’re looking at 680 1⁄3 innings pitched with a 4.00 ERA leading up to his age 27 season.
But Tillman follows the trend we’re starting to pick up here. He fluctuated between bad in 2015 (82 ERA+) and good in 2016 (114+) before two truly dreadful seasons in 2017 and 2018 which led him out of the Orioles staff. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since. One again we are left with a cautionary tale for what could be for Rodriguez.
Holland’s age 26 season was arguably the best of his career to this point. He set full season career-highs in starts (33), ERA (3.42), ERA+ (120) and strikeouts (189). That 2013 campaign came on the heels of a rocky but promising first four seasons with the Texas Rangers. Holland had to wait a bit before his encore, but when he did pitch in 2014, it looked like he was ready to reach even higher than the year before. He twirled 37 innings stellar innings to post a 1.46 ERA and build up anticipation for his future. Since that season, however, Holland has been unable to capture such success. He has been a serviceable starter at best, bouncing around to a few teams with flashes of his former brilliance, especially in 2018 when he had a 106 ERA+ for the San Francisco Giants.
So what have we learned? You could argue nothing. You can’t really project injuries and most of these guys got unlucky and health ruined their potential. In addition, as similar as their workloads and production might have been, we’re talking about six separate human beings in very different situations. However, if you look further down the list of guys with similar careers to Rodriguez at age 26, you’ll find Chan Ho Park, Brad Penny and Jon Niese. None of those guys are or were bad pitchers by any means, but they set a pretty hard and far from lofty ceiling. Perhaps that means that when framing expectations for Rodriguez, we should anticipate a pitcher who will be solid when healthy but whose workload to this point may take a toll sooner rather than later.