The struggles of Francisco Rodriguez have been quite pronounced. In his nine appearances, he has an ERA of 6.23, an FIP of 6.12 and an fWAR of -0.2. He has already blown two saves in eight attempts. He’s given up three home runs (he gave up six all of last year). He’s allowed runs in six of his nine outings, and only had one clean outing, a 1-2-3 inning against the White Sox in the season’s first series.
There are plenty of other data point, in the event you’ve been living under the rock and haven’t witnessed the struggles and felt the stomach churning, but suffice it to say, he’s been bad. Uncharacteristically so, given his long track record of success, and even how reliable he was last season.
So, how did the 35-year old go from reliable closer, saving 44 of 49 games a year ago, to getting hit around the yard? There’s a few key differences in comparing K-Rod-2017 to the 2016 version.
1) K-Rod’s velocity is down
Rodriguez hasn’t been a hard thrower in years, but his velocity has taken an even greater tumble compared to last year. Utilizing Pitch Info data, Rodriguez’s average four seam fastball velocity so far this year has been a pedestrian 88.2 MPH According to PITCHf/x, he’s at 87.9. Again, he doesn’t bring heat like he used to, but last year his average four-seamer sat just above 90 MPH. Even if you narrow it down to April of last year only, when it was colder and Rodriguez may have not reached top strength yet, he’s still down roughly one MPH.
Velocity is rarely the whole story when it comes to the struggles of a pitcher, but it’s usually a factor. And that becomes more pronounced as the average fastball velocity continues to increase. According to PITCHf/x data, the average fastball velocity is sitting at 92.7 so far this year. That leaves K-Rod’s fastball, on average, 5 MPH slower than just the league average fastball. It’s been trending that way for him, but it’s more pronounced this year.
2) His two-seamer isn’t being used
In 2016, K-Rod had an approximately split of 50% fastballs, 40% changeups, and 10% curveballs. Among his fastballs, those were roughly split evenly between his two-seamer and his four-seamer. There isn’t a huge difference in velocity or movement between the two, but in K-Rod’s case, his two-seamer usually has more swingback action and less rise on the fastball.
However, so far this year, the two-seamer has largely been shelved. Among 176 pitches thrown, only 13 of them have been sinkers. That’s roughly 7% of pitches, a dramatic decline from 2016, when he used it more than three times as much.
It’s worth noting that last year, among PITCHf/x pitch values, it was his worst pitch, grading at -3.2. But for a pitcher that no longer has dominating stuff, having a variety of pitches can frequently help keep hitters off-balance, and without two different movements on a fastball, hitters are going to be more likely to barrel up the four-seamer.
3) He’s not getting ground balls
Pitchers throw sinkers intending to get opposing hitters to swing on top of the ball, therefore hitting it into the ground, generating ground balls. Last year, K-Rod had over 50% of his balls in play hit on the ground – and for his career, he’s over 43% ground balls. So far this season, he’s only getting 32% ground balls. His GB/FB ratio has gone from a very solid 1.87 in 2016 to a staggering 0.63 so far in 2017. The lack of a two-seamer is a contributor there, but the rest of his pitches are being hit more in the air as well.
And when K-Rod gives up fly balls, they leave the park. K-Rod is at a 19% HR/FB rate, which is very high compared to league average, but he’s been well above league average for years now as well. Dating back to 2013, his HR/FB rate is at 16.9%.
So K-Rod’s high number of home runs allowed is not actually an anomaly – it’s a direct result of him giving up more fly balls, and having stuff that at this point in his career, leaves the park frequently.
K-Rod has been finding success in a variety of ways over the past several years, but he may also be at a point where the wheels suddenly start to come off. The league’s fastball velocity continues to tick up, while his is tumbling, making his fastball more hittable. On top of that, he’s no longer throwing his sinker much, a critical pitch for him to generate ground balls and keep the ball out of the air – because when he gives up fly balls, they’re going to find the seats.
That’s a lot of issues to battle, especially for a pitcher that has reached his mid-30’s and has already had to re-invent himself as a pitcher as he no longer fires the ball at 95+ MPH. Regaining velocity at his age is unlikely though, and re-finding the feel for a pitch can be difficult, especially to do during the year.
You don’t want to count out a guy that has a track record like Rodriguez’s, but he’s facing a lot of obstacles on the path to effectiveness.