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One Big Question: Will Eduardo Rodriguez trust his stuff like he did in 2019?

As in, can he trust his stuff?

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Eduardo Rodriguez.

The Question: Can Eduardo Rodriguez bring back his late-2019 aggression?

There is an argument to be made that no player in the league personified the 2020 COVID season like Rodriguez. It seems silly to say since he didn’t actually play in the season, but, well, that’s kind of the point. Everyone is coming back from a strange year with obstacles all over the place, but Rodriguez takes that to the max, after not only being infected with COVID in the summer but subsequently developing myocarditis, a heart condition. This was serious enough that he was essentially limited to the couch for the entire season, not even being able to do so much as walk on a treadmill until after the season concluded.

It goes without saying that, beyond the seriousness of the condition from a human perspective, the Red Sox missed his presence on the mound. This was a historically bad pitching staff, particularly in the rotation, and Rodriguez would have given them a steady hand up top. The good news is that he is somehow a full go this spring and the early returns have been phenomenal. I was among those skeptical that he would actually be ready for a normal spring, but to this point he has proven me wrong and then some. With this team having more rotation questions this year as well — albeit not as many nor to the same extent as last season — Rodriguez will be an important figure on this club. And they could really use the guy we saw back in the latter portion of the 2019 season.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

If you remember that 2019 season, in the pre-COVID era which feels like a century go at this point, the Red Sox southpaw took the step forward we had been waiting for his entire career. After merely showing flashes in his first four seasons in the bigs, we saw a refined version of Rodriguez taking the ball every five days. He ended up tossing a career-high 203 13 innings (66 more innings than his previous career-high) with a 3.81 ERA and a 3.86 FIP to match.

It wasn’t really just the numbers that were so impressive. Those were solid numbers, of course, as he was worth nearly four wins above replacement on FanGraphs and just about six WAR on Baseball-Reference. On a rate basis, though, he was roughly the same player he always had been. But there are two important points to make here that contributed to Rodriguez feeling like a different pitcher that summer. One is that he grew as the season went on, to the point where he pitched to a 3.15 ERA over his final 21 starts.

But even during that latter portion of the season, the numbers felt secondary and it was really the way that he pitched that stood out more than anything. Prior to this point in his career, Rodriguez had been incredibly frustrating to watch. Most of us could see the kind of stuff that could make him a really good pitcher in this league, but we also saw a guy who just didn’t trust it. He would get ahead in counts, but instead of finishing batters off he’d nibble around the edges of the zone, falling back behind and driving up pitch counts along the way. As a result, he rarely made it through even six innings for most of his career. In those final 21 starts, Rodriguez made it through six full innings in 15 of them and through seven full in eight.

And it is exactly that which the Red Sox are going to need in this coming season. If Rodriguez pitches with that aggressive mindset, the numbers will be there, but they first need that version of himself that is in attack mode and trusting of his stuff. Because the stuff is very much there. His fastball and cutter are both good pitches, and his changeup is one of the very best in baseball. It’s a matter of having all three and attacking the zone in any count, and not to overuse the word trust but he needs to have that trust that he can beat any batter with any pitch, which he can.

This is crucial for the Red Sox and for Rodriguez for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it simply works to put up results. We saw it firsthand in 2019. As soon as he stopped nibbling and started to take out his frustrations on the strike zone, he started to put up better numbers than ever before. His strikeout rate actually did fall a bit, but the Red Sox will take that trade off for more innings and fewer runs every day of the week. And on top of that, deeper outings at the top of the rotation saves the bullpen for the rest of the rotation, which is full of pitchers who have has plenty of questions of their own.

And then there’s Rodriguez himself, who is entering a huge season in his career. The southpaw, who turns 28 shortly after the season begins, is set to hit free agency next winter if he and the Red Sox don’t agree to an extension before the end of the year. Not only is he out to prove that he is fully recovered from last summer, but he is also looking to prove that he is worthy of a long-term deal. It will be an uphill battle with the CBA fight looming this winter, but he proved he was worthy two years ago. Missing last season hurt, but if he picks up where he left off then he will get his money, even in a relatively strong pitching market.

The Red Sox are going to go as far as their rotation will allow them, and how far their rotation allows them is largely dependent on how their ace leads them. Rodriguez is that ace, and Boston needs him not only to set the tone every five days, but get deep into games and allow his rotation mates to have the bullpen to fall back on. This has not always been a strength for the lefty through his career, but he finally started to think of is stuff the same way he always had in 2019. That transformed who he was on the mound, and Boston desperately needs that same mindset ahead of this 2021 season where they’re looking to defy expectations.