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2021 in Review: Eduardo Rodriguez and his very strange season

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Was he good or bad? Who’s to say?!

Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Eduardo Rodriguez.

2021 in one sentence

Eduardo Rodriguez never got the results he was looking for in 2021, but the peripherals told a much different story leading to one of the more confounding pitching seasons in recent Red Sox memory.

The Positives

Like I said, this season was one of the most confounding seasons I can remember from a Red Sox pitcher, and while I can’t remember if I’ve brought this up before I will do it again: It brings me back to the episode in Community when Abed takes a class dedicated to whether or not Nicolas Cage is a good actor. That’s where I am with whether or not Eduardo Rodriguez’s 2021 was a good season.

If you are on the side that it was indeed a good season, then the most obvious place to start is with the peripherals, which painted the southpaw in an extremely positive light. Despite middling results which we’ll get to in a bit, Rodriguez finished 2021 with a a 3.32 FIP, the best mark of his career and, after adjusting for park factors, comes in 21 percent better than league-average. It’s not hard to see how he got there, either, as he kept his home run rate in line with his career norms while posting career-bests in both strikeout rate and walk rate. And to dig in a little more, it seems it came down at least in part to hitting the zone, something he did 49 percent of the time this year (per Baseball Savant) which again comes in as a career-best.

Moving beyond the base peripherals, the best pitch in the lefty’s repertoire continued to be the best pitch in his repertoire, with Rodriguez once again dominating with the changeup. He has long had one of the better changeups in all of baseball, and once again it was his best offering in 2021, inducing a whiff rate of almost 30 percent while also leading to a ton of weak contact. Again per Baseball Savant, Rodriguez’s changeup allowed an average exit velocity of 83 mph and both his wOBA and expected wOBA against the offering came in under .300. His command with the changeup is exceptional, as he consistently is able to paint the bottom corner on his arm-side.

Rodriguez was also really able to boost his numbers against left-handed hitters this season, which is actually a bit against the norm for the southpaw. Given the changeup prowess we just discussed, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that he has often shown reverse splits in his career with that offspeed pitch keeping right-handed bats off-balance. To be fair, he was still solid against righties this year with a .334 wOBA, but that mark was 20 points better against lefties. To me, that shows off the fact that his full arsenal was working much better this year as opposed to just leaning on his fastball and changeup.

And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention probably the biggest positive for his season, which was simply pitching the entire season to no ill effects. Rodriguez, of course, missed all of 2020 after he contracted COVID and was subsequently diagnosed with myocarditis. Nobody really knew what to expect from him in 2021, and it seemed possible he just wasn’t going to have the stamina to stick in the rotation all season. That didn’t end up being a problem, however, as he made 31 starts plus a relief appearance on the season.

The Negatives

The more analytically-inclined, people who are more likely to look at the peripherals than the straight results from a pitcher, will likely come down more on the “Rodriguez was good in 2021” side of the coin, but those who prefer results-based analysis will be on the other side of the fence. And it’s warranted by the results. Despite his 3.32 FIP, the southpaw finished 2021 with a 4.74 ERA, which comes in slightly worse than league-average after adjusting for park factors. No pitcher had a greater gap between their ERA and FIP.

It’s hard not to come down on the side of this being a whole lot of bad luck, most of that bad luck lying in the fact that he had to play in front of Boston’s defense. That was certainly part of it, but I do want to go into a couple of things that Rodriguez could control to some extent and struggled with. The first is his contact profile. At first blush, it seems solid, as he ranked among the top 15 percent in baseball in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate (again, per Baseball Savant).

That said, if you dig a little bit deeper it’s a slightly different story. While his hard-hit rate came in better than league-average, Savant breaks it down a little bit more and looks at the percentage of barrels and solid hits a pitcher gives up. Rodriguez came in a bit worse than league-average in both. Granted, he was not over average marks in either of those categories to fully explain the ERA/FIP gap, and the defense still holds a good chunk of blame, but just citing his hard-hit rate may not tell the whole story.

There was also an issue of Rodriguez tending to let things snowball. This has seemingly been an issue for a lot of his career, and it was extra costly this year. When the bases were empty, he allowed a very impressive .303 wOBA, striking out 29 percent of his opponents while walking just six. However, once runners reached base, the strikeout rate fell below 25 percent with his walk rate jumping up two points. Those numbers only got worse in scoring position, too. Again, defense played a role here as well with his batting average on balls in play going up despite lower hard-hit rates, but the peripherals also got worse when the going got tough.

The Big Question

Can Eduardo Rodriguez bring back his late-2019 aggression?

It seems like forever ago now, but the final four months or so of the 2019 season was when it felt like Rodriguez was finally breaking out. He was dominant for the Red Sox for most of that stretch, and was pitching with an aggression that we had rarely seen from him before that. I don’t think we saw quite the same levels of aggression in 2021 and there were still frustrating moments of nibbling, but as we talked about above he did hit the zone as much as he ever has, and did mix his pitches pretty well. This one isn’t a full yes, but it’s more yes than no.

2022 and Beyond

Rodriguez was the first major free agent to sign a deal this winter, leaving Boston to ink a five-year deal with the Detroit Tigers as they try to come out on the other end of their rebuild in good standing. This feels like a good split for both sides, as Rodriguez gets a fresh start elsewhere, hopefully for his sake with a better defense behind him. It wouldn’t totally shock me to see him be an All-Star caliber starter this year and for the next few seasons, but I’m also not convinced that would have happened in Boston. I’ll be rooting for him, except when he plays the Red Sox.