In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Veteran reliever Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez is technically back for his fourth go-round with the Milwaukee Brewers, having first been traded to the Cream City during the 2011 National League Central championship season.
He’s clearly not the same pitcher the Crew acquired three seasons ago, and that should be reinforced with his usage in 2014. Today’s game requires a deep bullpen over the long haul, but Rodriguez’s value will be felt most in the sixth and seventh innings. Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler and Will Smith are far better options for all high-leverage situations, especially in the final two frames.
It’s not that, Rodriguez has faltered miserably in recent years and he’s actually posted solid numbers, but most people around baseball can sense that looming cliff where veteran pitchers plummet. It appeared the Brewers got away with one last season after Rodriguez fought his way through the minor league system, pitched well in Milwaukee, and then was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for a prospect.
Last year in Milwaukee, K-Rod held hitters to a .198 average, .274 on-base percentage and a diminutive .291 slugging (.594 OPS). In his 22 innings with Baltimore, those numbers jumped to .281/.326/.573/.899, an astonishing spike that could indicate trouble moving forward.
Rodriguez has watched his opponents hit for more power in each of his last three seasons; hitters’ slugging percentages have gone up from .308 in 2010 to .434 last year. This is due, in large part, to an increased rate of home runs allowed by K-Rod. Last season’s 1.4 home runs per nine innings (HR/9) was a career-high for Rodriguez, and the second straight season he finished at one or higher. His HR/9 hadn’t been that high since 2003, a big red flag for a reliever of his ilk.
Rodriguez no longer has the electric fastball that helped him earn an MLB-record 62 saves in 2008. The loss of that dynamic heater makes his changeup less effective, as hitters have a smaller velocity gap to adjust to when picking up his pitches. Rodriguez most likely realized this was a problem, because he threw his changeup more often in 2013 than he had in any season throughout his career.
At this point, K-Rod needs to be flawless in his mechanics, command and movement to be a dominant bullpen arm. The increasing issue with extra base hits and home runs also makes him a volatile risk each time he takes the hill. Giving up a three-run blast in the sixth inning certainly hurts, but at least there’s time to make up for it; not so much in the final two innings.
The Rodriguez deal, though too pricey for my blood, isn’t horrible if he’s utilized sparingly and in the earlier innings. However, if Kintzler and Smith are relegated to lower-leverage situations in favor of K-Rod, the signing becomes far worse. Rodriguez will not be able to consistently retire hitters when at-bats mean the most, and for that, he should be the fourth option (at best) to come out of the bullpen.