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One Big Question: Does Eduardo Rodriguez have another leap forward in him?

The Red Sox could really use it.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Question: Can Eduardo Rodriguez continue to improve?

There are some injury questions surrounding Chris Sale, in case you haven’t heard. As of this writing on Wednesday evening, it has been reported that he will avoid Tommy John surgery (for now) but we still don’t know exactly what that “for now” part means or how long he’ll be out to start the season. So, for at least some period of time, the Red Sox will be without their ace. That was always going to be the pace, but the timeline has gone from a couple of weeks tops to indefinite.

This might blow your mind, but it’s less than ideal when your ace goes down with an injury. Not only do they lose the talent from the top of their rotation, which is obviously the biggest issue, but every other pitcher on their depth chart moves up a spot. When, say, a fifth starter goes down, it’s still not ideal but four of the five rotation spots stay the same. Here, everything changes.

That brings us to Eduardo Rodriguez, who was the number two starter on the Red Sox until all this Sale business got started. Again, we don’t know how much time Sale is set to miss, but for however long he is absent from the rotation, Rodriguez is suddenly thrust into the number one spot in the rotation. I think that distinction can often be overrated, to be fair, but it is still a big deal for Rodriguez. He’s not going to fill peak Sale’s shoes, and any expectations for that are just setting up for disappointments. There is a legitimate question, though, of whether or not he can take a step forward from last season.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

There are some broad reasons for optimism for Rodriguez, starting with his pedigree. The southpaw has been in the league long enough at this point that we should probably just ditch his prospect evaluations, but it’s something that’s never really shaken from the soon-to-be 27-year-old. He’s always shown just enough promise for a top-of-the-rotation arm that the potential never escaped the narrative around him. The other reason is what he did last season, which was to take a legitimate step forward and show more of that vaunted potential than ever before.

The thing is, when you look at some of the more base numbers for Rodriguez, they aren’t that impressive. They are good, but in the context of a normal baseball season a 3.81 ERA, 3.89 FIP and 4.46 DRA don’t jump off the page. Of course, 2019 was not a normal baseball season, as the ball was flying out of the park like it was a golf ball hit by Mike Trout at TopGolf. Those numbers (along with 19 wins, which certainly helped) were enough for a sixth place finish in Cy Young voting for Rodriguez. That’s a big-time season!

More importantly than adjusting for the run environment were the legitimate steps forward that were taken by Rodriguez and that improved as the season went on. Most notable among them was simply his approach on the mound. The reason he had always been so tantalizing while also making all of us pull our hair out is that he nibbles, especially after getting ahead in counts. You know that old adage: An Eduardo Rodriguez grows his wings every time a pitcher goes from an 0-2 count to a full count. This prevented him from getting deep into games, which obviously put a cap on his value. From 2016 through 2018, he had a total of five starts that went at least seven innings, including zero in 2018. In 2019 alone, he did that nine times.

Some of this seemed a little counterintuitive, as he seemed more willing to pitch to contact than before. That was what it seemed like to me, at least, though his strikeout rate jumped slightly in the second half when mot of his changes really took hold. His walk rate also jumped, which again was surprising. What it really points to, though, was that he was commanding the edges of the zone better than before and attacking those corners rather than passively pitching around them. It’s one of those things that’s hard to quantify — his zone rate was actually at a career low in 2019 — but also something that is abundantly clear if you’ve watched his career evolution.

Something that was quantifiable in Rodriguez’s improvement was the contact profile he began to allow in 2019. The lefty had always given up a ton of fly balls, which is a style that can work but is less intriguing when the ball was flying like it was last year. Fortunately, Rodriguez allowed more grounders than ever before. Way more. After three straight years with a ground ball rate below 40 percent (per FanGraphs) he finished 2019 with a rate of 48.5 percent. Even better was that this rate improved as the year went on and it became clear that the ball was not going to stop flying. In the second half, his ground ball rate was just below 52 percent.

It wasn’t just grounders, either. Rodriguez was doing a better job of keeping the ball out of the air and he was inducing a whole hell of a lot of weak contact. According to Baseball Savant, his hard-hit rate ranked in the top four percent of baseball and his average exit velocity was in the top six percent. Meanwhile, his expected wOBA fell to .294, the lowest mark of his career.

The biggest reason for all of this, and also the biggest reason there could be another leap for Rodriguez, is his changeup. Now, Rodriguez is at his best when he is mixing in all of his pitches and gets into trouble when he falls in love with any one offering, but his changeup is on another level. It’s always been a great pitch, but he threw it more than ever in 2019 at a rate of 24 percent. When he threw the change, he got a whiff rate of nearly 37 percent as well as an expected wOBA of .258 and an actual wOBA of .285.

He should actually throw this pitch even more, particularly against lefties. Generally speaking changeups are reserved for when the batter has the platoon advantage, and it’s a big reason why Rodriguez has regularly carried reverse platoon splits. However, he induced plenty of weak contact from lefties with this pitch last year, too, as well as a massive whiff rate of nearly 43 percent.

I haven’t really answered the question at hand, because I don’t have a good answer. That is not the same as saying I don’t have an answer, though. Much like I was describing with his approach on the mound, I don’t have a great way of articulating or quantifying my belief, but I do think Rodriguez has another leap forward. I don’t know that it will reflected in a better finish in the Cy Young race or anything like that, but really all he has to do is continue 2019’s last four months for a full season and that’s another leap. Throw in even more changeups, which is one of the best in baseball, and Rodriguez might just not be as miscast in the number one rotation spot as some may think.