If you haven’t noticed by now, the Fernando Rodney who is the All Star relief ace for the Rays is not the same Fernando Rodney who was a bust as a closer for the Angels and Tigers. A lot has changed in his short time with the Rays.
The Rays have been rather vague about the exact changes made to Rodney. Quite often Joe Maddon tries to shake data hounds off the scent by suggesting that players achieving early-season success can affect their confidence and performance. For a player like Rodney, who shoots imaginary arrows into the night after victories while wearing his tilted cap, this may be true; however, there are some tangible changes that have been uncovered.
Early on, R.J. Anderson discovered that Rodney’s position on the mound rubber had changed. Once lined up on the third base side, the Rays have had Rodney set up shop on the extreme first base side. From there, I noted that Rodney’s leg lift had also been altered. Not as if he had an El Duque-like move before, but what was a slight lift is not much of a lift anymore, but rather a small step. While these changes appear to be small and simple, even most arbitrary changes can alter movement and control.
Moving a pitcher on the rubber and keeping his front leg grounded does not mean success for every pitcher. There also needs to be some natural talent there, and Rodney has always had explosive stuff. That said, in addition to the physical tweaks, he has as gained a better understanding of how to use his arsenal.
Over the past few seasons Rodney started to show reverse platoon splits. Because of his devastating changeup, he was effective against left-handed batters. However, his inability to throw strikes with his fastball and slider to right-handers meant a low strikeout rate and a high walk rate.
This season Rodney has given up his slider and focused on a fastball/changeup combination. The changeup–which is arguably the best pitch of Tampa Bay’s entire staff – has seen its nastiness magnified by better fastball control.
Rodney is generating a called strike on 26 percent of all fastballs (four-seam and two-seam) thrown. That is a nine percent improvement from 2011 and nearly double the 14 percent rate he earned in 2010. This is where we should give some love to Jose Molina‘s master framing skills as well. In addition to the called strikes, hitters have whiffed on 19 percent of their swings against his fastballs, his highest rate since 2008 (22%).
Rodney’s dedication to stick with his bread and butter combination has paid dividends that cross the platoon spectrum. After walking nearly as many right-handed batters (53) as he struck out (56) from 2009-2011, he has handed out just two walks to righties this season while punching out 19. He continues to excel against lefties, holding them to a miniscule .408 OPS with a 19 strikeouts compared to three walks.
Be it better run due to position on the rubber position, better command thanks to a more balanced base sans leg lift, or better defensive catchers behind the plate, Rodney is now painting the corners of the zone with his mid-90s fastball instead of coloring aimlessly outside of the lines. The well-controlled fastball has only intensifed the effectiveness of Rodney’s already plus changeup. With a swing and miss rate of nearly 50 percent, his off-speed pitch is among the league leaders in empty swings when including both starting and relief pitchers.
In general, bullpen production is volatile. Outside of a handful of relievers with lengthy track records of top-shelf production, most breakout seasons are followed by breakdown (injury) or breakup (performance-induced heartache). However, when the better results are buoyed by a better talent level–be it a physical or philosophical change, or both–the enhancements can have an impact that endures.
Combine Rodney’s elite-velocity, his newfound control, and his tremendous changeup, and it appears that Rodney 2.0 has staying power. And with a modest $2.5 million club option for 2013, the Rays should continue to benefit from the Samana Express they helped rebuild.