Anyone with a beard knows that it typically doesn’t take all that long for the self-conscious thoughts about what’s going on under that beard set in. I haven’t even had my beard for all that long consecutively — I believe the last time I was clean shaven was in the fall of 2019 — but even I would be very nervous to shave it off now, not knowing what the clean face I’d unleash on the world would even look like. All of this is to say, it’s no small thing to shave a beard, at least in my experience. If you don’t have to do it for whatever the reason may be, doing it anyway can serve to send a message that you mean business.
Eduardo Rodriguez means business. For basically the first time in at least a few years, the Red Sox lefty took the mound last weekend in the Bronx with a clean-shaven face for his first start of the second half. The symbolism was palpable, as he was ready for a change in course.
The southpaw, who missed all of 2020 after contracting COVID and then subsequently myocarditis, didn’t have the first half of the season he was looking for, heading into the All-Star break with a 5.52 ERA. It was the worst mark on an unexpectedly effective Red Sox rotation, and the 19th worst among the 146 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings prior to the break.
On the other hand, the peripherals continued to expect Rodriguez to be much better. He was giving up a ton of hits, but it wasn’t coming on particularly hard contact and he was still missing bats while limiting his walks. In other words, he was doing exactly what he wanted, but just not getting the results. It is often overly simplistic to simply compare a pitcher’s ERA with his FIP (which measures a pitcher just by strikeouts, walks and home runs), but as an illustration of just how much Rodriguez’s results diverted from the peripherals, we’ll go back to that same group of 146 pitchers above.
Among them, only Matt Harvey had a great difference between his ERA and FIP, and that was with an ERA over 7.00. Among pitchers in baseball with at least average peripherals — and by park-adjusted FIP, Rodriguez was 13 percent better than the league-average pitcher — nobody had a larger gap than Rodriguez. Usually you can point to hard contact and say that is why the hits are falling in, but in this case Rodriguez’s hard-hit rate came in as the 20th lowest among those 146 arms.
All of this is to say that Rodriguez could have been much better in the first half. But then again, I could have been much better in school. Saying it doesn’t mean much. I don’t have more school, but Rodriguez has more baseball, and him coming back in the second half and pitching like he can, like we’ve seen him and like the peripherals suggested he should in the first is one of the most important storylines of the second half. And it’s important on both sides, for both the team and the player.
We’ll start with the team side of things, where the reasoning is honestly fairly obvious. While Boston’s rotation has been surprisingly effective, there are some cracks starting to show. Garrett Richards looked better for most of his last start, but the stuff largely hasn’t been as sharp for the last six weeks and even his last time out ended on a sour note. Both Nick Pivetta and Martín Pérez have been solid and are fine in the back-end, but they aren’t as consistent as they were earlier in the year.
At the start of the season, the Red Sox would have taken those kinds of descriptions, but it’s not the start of the season. It’s almost August, and Boston is locked in a tight division race with eyes on making a deep run into October. To do that, you really want a solid top three in your rotation at the least. Nathan Eovaldi has mostly been that guy, and the All-Star has earned at least the title of good number three, given health. Chris Sale is approaching his return. It’s Rodriguez that is the wildcard, but if he pitches up to his potential he can slot in between them, and suddenly Boston has the kind of rotation they need given the situation in which they find themselves.
And then there’s the Rodriguez side of the coin. As if coming back from last season wasn’t pressure enough for the lefty, he’s also staring down the barrel of free agency in this coming winter. It’s going to be a stressful enough offseason for guys on the open market with the CBA expiration coming after the season. You don’t need to add more stress by struggling through the previous season, leaving your market in an uncertain place.
Although Rodriguez isn’t likely to be looking at any sort of massive payday, the difference between a good and bad second half for him is not going to be trivial. If he pitches up to his peripherals, or even more, it’s not hard to see him getting a multi-year deal with eight figures per season. On the other hand, not getting it done down the stretch can very easily result in a one-year pillow contract, and perhaps even for a seven-figure value.
Personally, I’m optimistic he’s going to turn it around, mostly because of the peripherals we discussed up top, along with the fact that he just seems to be settling in a bit more of late. The southpaw is set to take the ball on Friday for his second start of the season. His first one, with a clean-shaven look, worked out well as he tossed 5 2⁄3 shutout innings against the Yankees with eight strikeouts and two walks. Expect another beard-less version of Rodriguez to come out at Fenway to face the Yankees yet again later tonight, and for the sake of both him and the team, hopefully he can pick up where he left off and keep the momentum going in the right direction.