I know, I know. This is like, what, the fourth article on Fernando Rodney this week? He's been getting a lot of chatter, some good, some bad and in our usual fan way, we've been especially divided on him. The question on everybody's mind, lately, is should Rodney and Archie Bradley switch roles?
Rodney has been good this year. He's saved a lot of games, is middle-of-the-pack in blown save percentage, and is in the top 25% in WPA and WPA/LI, both of which are saying he's adding more wins to the team than he's taking away from them.
Let's step away from the Bradley/Rodney swap for the sake of this article, and focus on a simpler subject: how has Rodney performed as a closer?
First, let's define what a "closer" is. A closer is a pitcher that is essentially used in the 9th inning (or later) when the team has a lead to "close out" the game. As a consequence of this definition, a closer will naturally be in most of the highest-leverage situations in a game.
And Rodney is no slouch in that regard. Rodney has a 2.01 personal leverage index (pLI) on the season, which is the 7th highest in the majors. An average LI is set to 1.00, so that means that Rodney has been dealing with twice the pressure and intensity than a normal situation. FanGraphs defines leverage into three intensities: low (0-0.85), medium (0.85-2.0), and high (2.0+). So how has Rodney performed during these various leverage situations?
Rodney wOBA Per LI
When it has mattered most, Rodney has performed best. In the high leverage situations, Rodney has held batters to a paltry 0.237 wOBA, which is the 12th lowest in the MLB. That's even better than Archie Bradley (.283). And even the medium leverage, with his .250 wOBA, is still very, very good.
And it's not a matter of facing weak opponents, either. Per this table from Baseball Prospectus, Archie Bradley and Rodney have faced the toughest batters (as a Diamondback) this season:
Dbacks Opponent OPS
There's two things to takeaway from this table: 1) Rodney and Bradley have faced virtually identical batters in terms of OPS and 2) The rest of the team has had it really, really, easy (every other pitcher is in the bottom half in OPP_OPS).
So, slam dunk, right? Rodney has faced some of the toughest hitters in the highest of leverage situations and held them to one of the best wOBAs - he's a great closer!
There's a catch. Fernando Rodney's ERA in high leverage situations: 6.37.
How is this happening?
Bad luck in sequencing. Rodney has a 3.29 FIP, with a healthy 2.09 K/BB ratio and a fantastic 0.47 HR/9. He even has a .235 BABIP in these situations, so it's not BABIP-related.
Or is it?
Runners on base, high leverage: .360 BABIP
Runners in scoring position, high leverage: .424 BABIP
Oof. That is some really poor timing to have your BABIP skyrocket. Now, many of you will believe that this is some sort of inherent "closer" skill and this is just a byproduct of him melting down when it matters most.
I'm here to tell you that this is crazy. This is far more likely to be a byproduct of bad luck and extremely small samples than failing under pressure. Rodney has been in the MLB for a long time, let's take a look at how he's performed in past 7 years.
In the past, Rodney has performed roughly in line with his career BABIP (.289). Over a large sample, you would expect this to average around a pitcher's natural talent.
2017 is completely different story. If this was an inherent problem of Rodney melting down when it matters most, it would have manifested itself well before 2017.
Rodney's performed well this season. The vast majority of his games have been good (33:8 SD:MD) for the Diamondbacks. His peripheral numbers have been great as well and suggest something far better than his current 4.68 ERA would suggest. Rodney has had some untimely hits with runners on base and they've compounded into some big losses. However, this is not truly evident of a longstanding problem and is rather a product of the truly small sample sizes you deal with as a relief pitcher.
This is where it's difficult as a fan. You want to scream at the manager for leaving Rodney in when it was CLEAR! that Rodney was going to struggle. You just knew it! But you gotta let go and not look in hindsight. Rodney has been good and will continue to be good. He's going to fail on occasion, too. He may not be a better pitcher than Bradley, but he's been solid for us as a closer and there is no need to change that role any time soon.