Coming into 2009, there was a lot of speculation about Fernando Rodney, who after working as the Tigers' setup man and pitching very well for the club in 2006, had two very inconsistent, injury-riddled seasons, causing many to question the Tigers' decision to make Rodney the club's closer for '09.
Their skepticism was at minimum justified, if not downright expected. His ERA was a very pedestrian 4.25, his K:BB ratio was less than two, and he had converted just 33 saves in 58 save opportunities.
But Rodney's numbers and production is tough to argue with through the first four-plus months of 2009. 2-2 W-L, 3.86 ERA, 46 Ks in 49 innings, and most important of all, 23 saves in 24 opportunities.
But is this production for real?
Well, his ERA is legit. His FIP is 4.11, just a difference of 0.25, and his home run rate is consistent with his career average. In other words, he's not pitching too far above his head.
The one notable statistic that has been out of whack from his career norms – his line drive percentage for the season is a miniscule 9.1% (as opposed to running career norms ranging between 12% and 28%). While his WHIP is a tad under his career WHIP (1.33 to 1.40), it's likely that if the line drive % jumps, so will his WHIP.
Now, it's reasonable to say that his change-up, which has been outstanding for much of 2009, and his increased velocity, has a lot to do with that. Rodney's fastball/change-up combo has a tendency to leave hitters off-balance, meaning that when they do make contact, they'll either be out in front or behind, making it more difficult to get ‘good wood' on the ball.
There has of course been some skepticism about Rodney's ability to record saves – he's quickly inherited the ‘rollercoaster' nickname that had been attached to former Tigers' closer Todd Jones. But in Rodney's 24 save opportunities, he's only allowed a run to cross the plate four times, and in all four of those instances, he allowed just one run to score. His batting average against has been just .190, and his K:BB ratio a solid 2.17.
In other words, with the game and the pressure on, Rodney has been outstanding. His high save rate hasn't been a product of lots of save opportunities with a three run cushion, but rather, Rodney has just been very good with the game on the line.
Non-save situations of course have been a different case. Rodney has been in the same number of games in non-save situations, and the results have been drastically different. In those 24 games, nine of them he gave up runs, and six of them he gave up two or more runs. His K:BB ratio is just 1.67 and his average against is .269.
This isn't just luck that he happened to have a walk here and there and then a home run hit off him – Rodney is a less effective pitcher in every facet when a save is one the line.
It's hard to say why, but there's no question that this isn't just all luck of the draw, that Rodney enters games that are non-save opportunities with a little bit of a different mind-set, expecting that he doesn't have to be perfect, or even as efficient as he does when he comes in to close a game out.
Of course there are going to be times when the Tigers have to put Rodney in. This past Friday's game against Minnesota being a perfect example, when Rodney began warming up with the Tigers holding a three run lead, only to see the club add an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. Or in lengthy games, when the Tigers are still knotted up passed the ninth and the team wants their best pitchers on the mound.
But the numbers are clear. Rodney excels with the game on the line. His pre 2009 numbers, while interesting, clearly aren't worth putting stock into. It's also important to remember that a setup man also ends up with a blown save when he loses the lead late, but never earns a save when he bridges the gap and holds serve in his outing. So his blown saves in the past aren't too much to fret about.
What's important is that Rodney has become a reliable closer for the Tigers in 2009, and a big reason why the Tigers are sitting in first place in the AL Central – they've got a reliable pitcher to hand the ball in the ninth with the game on the line.