Rodney Living His Own Experience
Image courtesy of © Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY SportsOn the season, Rodney has been called upon eight times. He’s converted two save attempts while taking two losses and three blown saves. After his latest go-round with the New York Yankees, in which he recorded no outs and gave up three runs (two earned) his ERA sits at an ugly 6.75 across 6 2/3 innings pitched. From those numbers alone, you can choose to take the road of the collective majority and call for his head. The alternative is to look a bit deeper.
This isn’t uncharted territory for Rodney, and really, it shouldn’t be for Twins fans either. On April 29th last season, Rodney owned a 12.60 ERA and was allowing opposing batters a 1.066 OPS off of him. He’d taken two losses and two blown saves over just 10 innings pitched for the Diamondbacks. All worse numbers than where he’s currently at for the Twins, Fernando then went on a run. For the rest of the season, Arizona called on him to pitch 45 1/3 innings. He turned in a 2.38 ERA, allowed opposing batters just a .442 OPS, and saved 33 contests while blowing just four more games.
So why should you as a Twins fan be able to relate? How about because the same transformation happened right here at Target Field last year. Matt Belisle, who eventually replaced Brandon Kintzler as closer, owned a 9.00 ERA on May 7th. On that day he gave up six runs to the Boston Red Sox while recording just one out. From that point on though, the 36 year-old was lights out. In his final 47 1/3 innings for Paul Molitor last season, Belisle owned a 2.66 ERA and a .617 OPS against. Also an elder statesmen of the game who looked cooked in the early action, then a turnaround came.
Now, for Rodney, the blueprint towards effectiveness seems pretty clear. Over the course of his career, Rodney’s plan of attack has been to lean on a strong fastball that touches the upper 90’s, and then come back often with a changeup that presents something like a 15 mph decrease in velocity. Through his 16 big league seasons, he’s averaged usage rates on those two offerings at 43% and 36% respectively. For the Twins this year however, something is way out of whack, as the bow hunter is throwing fastballs 64% of the time while serving up his changeup just 20% of the time.
It’s easy to suggest that being 41 years-old could have some sort of effect on his performance, but the reality is that this same pitcher was 40 and effective one year ago. Instead of assuming a decline that the numbers disagree with (his average fastball velocity is exactly where it was last season), the more plausible explanation seems to be a process that’s deviated from what has worked so wonderfully in the past.
Right now, and likely because of his pitch mix, Rodney is simply failing to keep hitters off balance. Knowing the fastball is coming more often, he’s been more predictable to sit on. Despite allowing just three home runs all year a season ago, he’s already served up two with April still having yet to fade away. The K/9 and BB/9 rates are actually wonderful for a guy who tiptoes both lines so feverishly, but it’s the 13.5 H/9 (nearly double his career average) that’s causing problems.
The Minnesota Twins have a few things they need to digest and address with their current closer. Arguably the most important is figuring out why the changeup usage has fallen off a cliff. It’s currently registering as the best quality of pitch average over the course of his career, and he’s not going to it at all. His fastball has never been less quality than it is right now, yet he’s leaning on it so heavily. Figuring out whether it’s a confidence thing, or just some ill-advised change in process is a must.
From there, Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston must decide if the process can be rectified while keeping him in his current role. Ideally the Twins should want to have the flexibility of inserting arms like Addison Reed or Ryan Pressly at whichever point in the game high leverage first presents itself. Saving impact arms like that for what could be low leverage outs in the 9th inning would be wasteful. If Rodney can’t tweak his process while remaining in the closer role, they have to be willing to alter his usage until things are back on track.
At the end of the day, I think there are a couple of really important takeaways here. Rodney is in no more of a dire situation than the Twins are as a whole right now. Being swept is hardly ideal, but they’ve played just 12% of their total schedule and there’s so much baseball ahead. On top of that, Paul Molitor’s bullpen is best constructed with the arms currently in it. There are contributors down on the farm, but none of them represent a golden ticket. Getting each of the guys currently beyond the outfield wall right is Minnesota’s best hope.
There definitely comes a point in every player’s career where it’s simply time to hang it up and be real with the fact that the game has left you. Despite being 41 years old, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this being that crossroads for Fernando Rodney. The hope would be that in a few months, this date would be the one we look back upon and note it as having been the turning point.
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