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2020 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews #41: Hector Rondon

He was not the closer we were looking for.

Arizona Diamondbacks v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
  • Rating: 2.88
  • Age: 33
  • 2020 Stats: 20 IP, 25 H, 18 R, 17 ER, 6 HR, 11 BB, 23 SO, 7.65 ERA, 6.59 FIP, -0.6 bWAR
  • 2020 Salary: $2.5 million (not pro-rated)
  • 2021 Status: option not exercised ($500K buyout), unrestricted free agent

At the time he was signed, this seemed to have the potential to be quite a good move for the Diamondbacks. It looked like another case of Mike Hazen picking up a reliever with experience as a closer, without having to pay current closer prices. Rondon had 92 saves over seven seasons, including fifteen as recently as 2018 while with the Astros. With a career ERA+ of 125 coming in, getting him for a relative song had appeal, and the general reaction on the SnakePit at the time of the news seemed moderately positive.

However, this contract will end up being filed in the growing pile of sucky veteran relievers to have passed through Arizona in the last few years. For Rondon continued the theme of Greg Holland (2019) and Brad Boxberger (2018) - indeed, he was arguably the worst of the lot. Hector certainly didn’t make a good first impression. Rondon came into the third game of the year, against the Padres, and... Well, here are the first three batters he faced as a Diamondback: Fernando Tatis Jr, Manny Machado and Tommy Pham. Any thoughts of him being the closer probably died that day.

His second appearance was arguably worse. Again, he didn’t get out of the inning, as four consecutive batters reached with two outs. Through two outings, eight of the eleven batters faced had reached base against Hector, four on hits and four on walks. Things didn’t get much better going forward. After a dozen trips to the mound, this was his line:
Rondon: 9.1 IP, 14 H, 13 R, 12 ER, 6 BB, 10 SO, 11.57 ERA
and a 1.209 OPS against. Through 30 team games, the only pitcher (min 9 IP) in franchise history with a higher ERA was Matt Mantei - 11.81 ERA over 10.2 innings in 2004. Though another veteran Hazen arm, Fernando Rodney, came close with an 11.45 ERA in 2017.

About the only positive is that most of this suckage came in relatively low leverage situations for Arizona - albeit in part because the team wasn’t ahead very often. Rondon’s Win Probability added over that time was -41.4%, considerably less problematic than the -192.5% posted by Mantei or -138.6% by Rodney in their nightmare seasons. Starting off so badly largely guaranteed he was kept away from crucial game situations. Only five times in the season did he take the mound with the scores tied or the Diamondbacks up by one run - and one of those was Hector’s debut, immortalized above.

So, what was the problem? Simply put, far too much hard contact. He ranked in the top 5% for exit velocity given up, with an average value of 91.5 mph. He was even higher when it came to pitches barrelled up by hitters, where Rondon was in the top 2%. His line-drive rate more than doubled from 2019, exploding up from 18.4% to 38.7%. The problem in particular seemed to be his fastball. It dropped a little in velocity, from an average of 96.7 to 95.7 mph, but more importantly, it just wasn’t getting swings and misses. His whiff percentage on it collapsed from 21.6% to 9.5%.

There were still occasional outings where Rondon pitched like the guy of old. On September 8 at Chase Field, he came in to the top of the sixth inning against Los Angeles. He struck out Mookie Betts on three pitches, fanned Corey Seager, then K’d A.J. Pollock on three more, striking out the heart of the Dodgers order on 11 pitches. Below, you’ll see the pitches which got Betts and Seager - plus all three strikes to Pollock because seeing A.J. flailing at balls down and away as a Dodger, never gets old. :) But if there’d been rather more of this kind of outing, and rather less of the one above, the D-backs could well have ended up exercising Hector’s option for 2021.

Instead, he’ll hit the free agent trail. joining what is going to be a crowded and troubled marketplace, considerin the surplus of players (very few options getting picked up) and dearth of available money after a largely revenue-free 2020. It’s hard to say how much stock teams might put in Rendon’s 20 poor innings this year. His career ERA+ is still 119, and he’ll still be only 33 come next Opening Day. However, the red flags were there in the peripherals such as the declining velocity and whiff rate. He may have to settle for a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training from someone looking for bullpen depth. What happens thereafter will be entirely on Hector.