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Is Fernando Rodney good?

Should we sit back and enjoy the Fernando Rodney Experience?

Arizona Diamondbacks v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And the first impression made by Fernando Rodney was not a great one. On Opening Day against the Giants, he entered a tied game in the ninth, and promptly allowed a triple to the first batter he faced for Arizona. The runner scored two pitches later, and Rodney was in line for the loss in his D-backs debut, until RBI singles from Daniel Descalso and Chris Owings, turned the L into a W. But it was a rocky start, not helped by some even worse performances to come: at one point later in April, only 13% said he should remain as closer.

I will admit to feeling that way - we seemed to have better options available, not the least of which remains Archie Bradley. Personally, it wasn’t just a case of over-reacting to one bad month, because Rodney was also pretty bad after his trade to Miami last year. Combine that with April, and over 46.2 innings, he had a troublesome 7.33 ERA. But I have to say, Rodney has been little short of awesome over the last six weeks. The only blown save came as the result of a Paul Goldschmidt error on a bunt. Otherwise, he reached a new peak last night, when he closed out a one-run lead without even letting the Tigers put a single ball in play, striking out the side.

So maybe we need to #LetItGo? Part of the problem is that evaluating relief pitchers is still in its infancy. With position players, we have a good set of tools which can be used to compare one against another. The same goes for starting pitchers - and there, you typically have a larger sample size with which to work, typically around three times the number of innings worked by a regular reliever. Relievers? Not so much. There is a tool-box of possibilities, so let’s see how Rodney stacks up, against his fellow closers (the 30 with the most saves thus far) and/or the rest of the D-backs bullpen.

ERA is the area likely least favorable to Rodney. His ERA of 5.11 ranks 26th among closers, and among the elite (10+ saves), he is 22nd of 24, trailing everyone bar the PadresBrandon Maurer and Royals’ Kelvin Herrera. However, in Rodney’s defense, this is severely skewed by a couple of bad outings. Indeed, one appearance - the hellacious one against the Padres on April 26, where he allowed six hits to eight batters - is responsible for 36% of his earned runs for the entire season, in less than one inning of work. He has been literally immaculate since the end of May, appearing in 15 games and allowing one unearned run over 14.2 innings of work.

But the problem is, due to multiple rough early outings, he had a 12.60 ERA to that point. Rodney had the highest ERA ever by a Diamondbacks pitcher through the end of April (min 10 IP), and it’s not even close - nobody else has been in double-digits. As a result, even after more than six weeks of shutout baseball, in which he has allowed just two hits, Rodney’s ERA remains worse than anyone else who has pitching in Arizona’s bullpen this year, save Silvino ‘Bus Pass’ Bracho. It would take a further 17.1 scoreless innings for Rodney’s ERA to get down to three. And that would still only leave him in the middle of the closer pack, tied for 15th among the 30.

Conversely, looking at pure save numbers may put too much gloss on Rodney’s season. The RockiesGreg Holland is the only closer with more than Fernando’s current tally of 18. But part of that is simply chances: Holland is the only closer who has had more save opportunities than Rodney, too. Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers has just 13 saves - but has yet to blow a save, and has a sub-one ERA, so you’d be hard pushed to argue he’s having a worse season. The same goes for the CubsWade Davis (11 of 11, 1.21 ERA) or the IndiansCody Allen (15 of 16, 2.19 ERA).

Win Probability tells a different story again. Rodney tops the charts for the team in positive WP, his saves and good appearances having led to +384% for our chances. But the ugly blown saves have all but wiped that out, being worth -363%. Here’s how the most active D-backs relievers stack up in overall WP.

  1. Archie Bradley +133%
  2. Jorge de la Rosa +114%
  3. Randall Delgado +48%
  4. Fernando Rodney +21%
  5. Andrew Chafin -2%
  6. J.J. Hoover -28%
  7. Tom Wilhelmsen -29%

The concept of “shutdowns” and “meltdowns” are another possibility. Those are appearances where a pitcher helps or hurts his team by 6% or more. Rodney has more shutdowns for Arizona than anyone else (17). But he also has more meltdowns (5) than anyone bar Hoover (7). If we look to compare like with like, and stack Fernando up against other closers, we see something similar. Across the top thirty relievers by number of saves, only the Brewers’ Cory Knebel (20) and... OMG, the MetsAddison Reed (18) have more shutdowns. But again, Rodney is in the top five among these pitchers for meltdowns.

I think at this point Rodney is probably among the best and worst of relievers. He’s Schrodinger’s closer: you don’t know what you’ll get until you open the bullpen box, and he collapses into either a dominant pitcher or a hit-generating machine. I’m reminded very much of the Jose Valverde era. In 2007, Papa Grande led the majors with 47 saves... but blew seven, and my memory seems to recall, wobbled in and out of danger on innumerable other occasions. Still, he was a key factor in getting the D-backs to the National League West title. If Rodney ends up doing the same, the theatrics and cap-angle will be irrelevant.

It is reasonable to discount entirely those ugly implosions in the first month? Perhaps - if there is sufficient evidence to suggest a change in Rodney’s approach or mechanics, in response to the early struggles. Does the pitch F/X information suggest there has been such an adjustment? To find out, I pulled out the stats from BrooksBaseball.net. I looked at three periods of time: July 1-end of 2016, when he struggled with the Marlins. April 1-30, when he struggled with the D-backs, and May 1-now, when Rodney has been successful with the D-backs. First off, I looked at pitch usage and average velocity.

Fernando Rodney pitches

Period Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Fourseam (mph) Sinker (mph) Change (mph) Slider (mph)
Period Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Fourseam (mph) Sinker (mph) Change (mph) Slider (mph)
2nd half 2016 18.56% 38.53% 42.92% 96.00 95.14 83.80
April 2017 35.42% 26.04% 1.04% 37.50% 96.08 94.89 84.13 85.62
May-June 2017 16.60% 42.74% 1.66% 39.00% 95.62 94.60 83.76 86.05

I would presume there has been a change in classification between last year and this: either that, or Rodney has all but completely abandoned the change, and gone to the slider instead. The changes in measurement between seasons do make me reluctant to draw any conclusions based on 2016 vs. 2017 differences. But what is notable, particularly between Bad Rodney seen in April, and Good Rodney since, is the switch from heavy reliance on a straight four-seam, to a sinker. That is likely helping him get back to generating the ground-balls he did when successful. For instance, last year when good with San Diego, his GB ratio was 1.44; that dropped to 1.13 in Miami.

I note a slightly lower velocity of late too. This may be entirely deliberate, and it’s possible Fernando has also taken a little off his pitches, trading sheer power for better control. Earlier this month, he told Jack Magruder, “The velocity is there (but) I would rather keep it 94, 95, because it will stay in the strike zone. Sometimes when I am feeling more fresh the ball runs. I get bad location. When I throw at 93, 94, 95, that is best. Location is most important. I’ve been able to hit my spots, and that’s what it is. You locate the pitches, no matter if they hit it, the ball is going to stay in the park. That’s the best part right now.”

Now, let’s look at pitch movement and release point. Because of the measurement issues mentioned above, I’ve stuck to just the two periods: April this year, and May-June.

Rodney movement and release point

Pitch Type pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Pitch Type pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
APRIL
Fourseam -4.99 10.06 -1.80 6.11
Sinker -8.10 5.86 -1.96 6.01
Change -8.78 4.27 -2.05 6.03
Slider 2.47 3.68 -2.25 5.95
MAY/JUNE
Fourseam -4.22 9.97 -2.12 6.17
Sinker -7.82 7.00 -2.27 6.13
Change -8.84 4.65 -2.37 6.06
Slider 1.38 2.41 -2.35 6.08

What stands out here is an apparent change in horizontal release point for Rodney, of about four inches, across most of his pitches. This does suggest some kind of mechanical issue may have been located and addressed, leading to improved effectiveness for Rodney’s sinker. If so, and this is a factor in Rodney’s new-found success, kudos are due to Mike Butcher and his staff. It’s a sharp contrast to the apparently unfixable nature of Shelby Miller’s problems at the start of 2016. Right now - if we were in a one-game playoff with the Dodgers tonight - I would be content to see Rodney coming in from the bullpen to hold a ninth-inning lead.

Of course, if he returns to April’s suckage, I reserve the right to play my fan card of fickleness, and change my opinion once again!

Poll

How satisfied are you with the Fernando Rodney Experience?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Very highly satisfied
    (21 votes)
  • 33%
    Highly satisfied
    (73 votes)
  • 47%
    Somewhat satisfied
    (103 votes)
  • 5%
    Not very satisfied
    (13 votes)
  • 3%
    Not at all satisfied
    (8 votes)
218 votes total Vote Now