Name: R.J. Rodriguez
DOB: July 5, 1984
Fitted into short-season Eugene for much of his first season of professional baseball, Rodriguez saved 14 games in 16 chances and held the opposition to a .207 average against.
The diminutive right-handed reliever began the year in Low-A Fort Wayne as the closer. While opportunities were limited for a team that didn't hold many leads, Rodriguez managed to close out 18 games in 20 chances.
Ironically, 21 of the 26 runs he allowed in Fort Wayne came during non-save opportunities. In the 20 games where he had the chance to earn a save, he allowed just four earned runs over a span of 19.1 innings, boasting a 1.86 ERA in those contests.
"R.J. was with us for two years and in save situations over two years I think he has blown three saves, which is outstanding," former Fort Wayne and current Lake Elsinore pitching coach Wally Whitehurst said. "You know you can count on him in a save situation.
"His only problem was when it was a non-save situation and needed to get some work he got hit around. The mentality – when the game is not on the line you tend to relax and I think he relaxed and wasn't ready to pitch at times. Yet, when it was three runs or less in the ninth we could count on him.
It has been a point of consternation for the Miami native. When the pressure situation subsides, Rodriguez loses some of his focus and elevates his pitches.
Rodriguez feeds off the adrenaline of a situation and has cleaner mechanics and finer control when the game is on the line.
Yet, asked to come in and close out three separate games that the Wizards held a no-hitter in – Rodriguez could not rise to the challenge, allowing a hit each time and denying the first no-hitter in Wizards' history.
In early August, he was promoted to High-A Lake Elsinore. Rodriguez became a key element of the Storm relief corps. While his numbers in season weren't that good, he was a stalwart in the postseason.
Appearing in seven playoff games on their quest for a California League Championship, the Florida native allowed a single run over 9.2 innings, going 1-0 with a 0.93 ERA.
"I saw a guy that has the ability to close out games," former Lake Elsinore and current San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber said. "He is very aggressive and attacks the strike zone with his fastball. He has two – an above-average changeup and a slider that I believe could be average. He has two secondary pitches that are weapons to compliment his fastball."
A former infielder that took the mound his final year in high school, Rodriguez gets a lot of juice out of his generously listed 5-foot-11 frame.
Blessed with a bit of a rubber arm – one that does not get sore after a heavy workload of the day after day grind, Rodriguez velocity spiked this season.
After signing, Rodriguez was sitting 86-88 MPH with his heater and was clocked as high as 91 MPH. This season, Rodriquez upped the ante by sitting in the low-90s consistently and hitting 94 MPH with his two-seamer, a pitch that has kept its movement down in the zone.
"His velocity got better," said Whitehurst. "His slider got better. And he has always had that plus changeup. The kid wants to pitch every day, which is a good thing, but you have to tell him to back off sometimes."
The added ticks to his fastball have made his already devastatingly good changeup even better. The changeup – a pitch that the right-hander is comfortable burying in the dirt as a strikeout pitch or getting it to nip the outside corner to a left-hander for a called strike – has always been his bread and butter pitch.
When he needs a strikeout, the circle change is what he calls upon. It is a pitch that Rodriquez will toss in any count and any situation. He favors its use against left-handed hitters for its ability to cut the outside corner for a strike or come in tight before it trails back over the inside corner.
"For a small statured guy he throws it pretty hard, he threw two pitches the other day, a 93 MPH fastball followed by a 65 MPH changeup – that is Eric Gagne stuff," Eugene manager Doug Dascenzo said. "No one can put a bat on both of those pitches. That is the type of mentality that you want to see in a closer, and he has that."
He also has a "show-me" slider that is not as effective. Given his three-quarters arm angle, the Padres believe it could develop, but the slider has not made significant strides towards being a pitch Rodriguez is comfortable throwing. As a result, right-handed hitters can often wait and sit on his fastball, teeing off at a healthy clip.
An improved slider – a focus area for the 23-year-old – will add a different dimension and give him a pitch that moves away from a right-handed batter.
"The breaking ball is the big thing with him," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "He relies on the fastball and a good changeup, but his breaking ball is going to need a little more depth."
Rodriguez is a max-effort pitcher that uses his whole body through his delivery. He tucks his leg under his chin and leans his body back before propelling forward with a long stride that generates momentum to aid his arm speed. His body also twists with his arm, giving him good torque to add extra velocity and his arm traverses across his body and makes his arm appear to come more sidearm than it actually does.
There are times that Rodriguez will get rattled by a pitch he believes should be a strike and that negatively affects him. Part of it is his competitiveness and that is an area he needs to address moving forward. The right-hander has to realize he can only control the pitch and the call is outside of his realm. If it is a pitch he thinks should have been a strike, brush it off and come again. During those times, Rodriguez feels he has to be finer and ends up leaving balls over the middle of the plate to get hammered.
"The thing that stands out for me is he seems to strive on save situations in the ninth inning," said Webber. "That is when he does his best work. He is not intimidated by those situations and always seems to get that third out."
"He has a good changeup and plus fastball, but the breaking ball is inconsistent and he has a lot of effort," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "Those little guys have to do a lot. They have to throw really, really hard or have really good movement."
ETA: An improved slider will go a long ways towards getting both lefties and righties out. He has flashed an average slider, at times, and that will be tied closely to his future success. As a max-effort pitcher, there is concern over his ability to stay healthy. He has managed to stay clear of injury thus far. If he continues on the path and bears down a little more in non-save situations, Rodriguez could be a contributor as a setup man at the big league level. The odds have been stacked against him.
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