Few analysts applauded when Tampa Bay Rays inked Fernando Rodney over the winter to close games. While Rodney had nearly 90 career saves to his name, he was also coming off a season with the Angels in which he walked more batters than he struck out and held a career ERA+ (101) right around the league average. That's hardly the stuff of late-inning gunslinging, and the move seemingly didn't jive with the Rays' typically stat-savvy approach.
But, as ESPN SweetSpot's David Schoenfield notes, the crooked-capped Rodney has been lights-out in Tampa:
You know, Fernando Rodney has never really been that good. He had 44 good innings for the Tigers in 2005 and he was tough to hit in 2006, when he had a 3.52 ERA. But from 2007 through 2011, he posted a 4.42 ERA, hardly impressive for a relief pitcher, and allowed a ton of baserunners (1.50 WHIP) as he always walked too many batters (5.2 walks per 9). He lucked into 37 saves for the Tigers in 2009 despite a 4.40 ERA and other uninspiring numbers (41 walks, 61 strikeouts, eight home runs in 75.2 innings).
So of course the Angels gave him $11 million, and then were surprised when it turned he was wild and ineffective.
And then the Tampa Bay Rays signed him. The Rays are always in search of power arms for their bullpen. Sure enough, Kyle Farnsworth gets hurt, Joe Maddon decides to sort of make Rodney his closer, he starts throwing strikes for the first time in his career and now he's 2-0 with 11 saves, no blown saves, no extra-base hits allowed and a .232 opponents' OBP, more than 100 points below his .342 career mark.
Rodney has struck out 19 hitters in 18.2 frames, while also walking just two batters unintentionally and getting lots of ground balls (55 percent of pitches put in play). With 0.8 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, Rodney has already provided twice as much value for his club this year than he did from 2006-2011 combined.
While the big dip in walks might suggest that Rodney is suddenly pounding the strike zone, that's not really the case. His percentage of pitches thrown in the zone has climbed, from 46 percent to 48 percent, but that's about average for relief pitchers. The bigger change is that Rodney's mid-90s fastball and low-80s changeup are getting more swings on pitches thrown off the plate:
|Pitch||2011 Chase Pct.||2012 Chase Pct.||Avg. for Relievers|
Most of those extra chases are coming on pitches thrown to the glove side, either well off the outside corner to lefties or just below the knees. Take a look at hitters' swing rate by pitch location versus Rodney during his disastrous 2011, and then in 2012:
Those chases on arm-side pitches are also leading to many more swings and misses. Look at Rodney's opponent contact rate by pitch location last year, and then in 2012:
Hitters have an overall miss rate of 32 percent against Rodney's stuff this year, well above his 21 percent mark in 2011 and the 24 percent average for relievers.
It's too early to declare Rodney an elite reliever after a month and a half, considering he put up middling numbers over the past decade. But right now, he looks nothing like the big-on-stuff, short-on-results slacker that frustrated talent evaluators in Detroit in L.A. Score another one for Andrew Friedman and company.