If you listen closely, you can probably still hear the boos echoing within the walls at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Fernando Rodney was not a fan favorite while he was with the Angels–and especially not so in 2011. The right-hander endured his worst season as a veteran last season, pitching to the tune of a 4.50 ERA, 1.69 WHIP, and career-worst 0.93 K/BB fueled by an eye-popping 7.9 BB/9. Rodney was worthy of the boos, however; to the fans’ credit, he was flat-out bad.
Yet despite the dismal performance, the Tampa Bay Rays threw Rodney a life-line, and signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal. With Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta in-tow as their closer and setup-man, respectively, it seemed as though Rodney would not get a sniff of save opportunities in St. Petersburg. But baseball has its way of surprising everyone. Farnsworth succumbed to an immediate injury–sidelining him for at least a month–and subsequently thrust Rodney and his suddenly valuable closing experience into the role. And to the surprise of everyone–perhaps Rodney included–the guy has done one hell of a job.
Sure, the season is young, but the pitcher’s 0.00 ERA, 0.00 WHIP, zero walks, and three heart attack-free saves are certainly note and double-take worthy. In fact, the last time Rodney performed this well as a closer was 2009, when he maintained a beginning-of-the-season scoreless streak for his first five games and saving two in the process. Rodney went on to save another thirty-five games that season, but sported an ugly 4.40 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and 1.49 K/BB to go along with it.
Perhaps the more amazing aspect of this Rodney-phenomenon is how–oh, how–the Rays looked at his 2011 season, and wanted to sign him. For [St.] Pete’s sake, the guy walked more batters than he struck-out and had a 5.09 xFIP vs. 4.50 ERA. Even though his bad season is undeniable, it’s possible it was just that–Rodney had a bad season. His .272 BABIP (vs. .291 career BABIP) meant there should have been less batters off the bases (from hits), and his career-best 5.0% HR/FB kept more homeruns than usual inside the park. Apparently his only pitch hit hard was his fastball (-2.4 RAA) as his slider (0.7 RAA) and change-up (2.5 RAA) were two effective pitches.
So if most of his peripherals suggest that he should have been a decent pitcher in 2011, what happened? Only Ronald Reagan can answer that one. It was a control-fueled trickle down effect. Due to the high level of walks surrendered (7.88 BB/9), opposing hitters simply became more patient when facing him. Even though his career-second-best 30.5% O-Swing% (percentage of non-strikes swung at) would suggest otherwise, more importantly, opposing hitters stopped swinging at his pitches, in general. Rodney sported a career-low in swinging strikes (8.2%) and general swings (just 40.9%). Due to all his obvious pitches outside the zone, batters simply did not see a good enough pitch to swing at, as suggested by his career-low 41.9% Zone% (percentage of overall pitches a batter sees inside the zone).
Now, unlike looking to BABIP, poor defense, or other don’t-blame-me angles, bad control is one hundred percent Rodney’s fault. However, the Rays probably thought, “Hey, what if this guy just reverts back to his career average BB/9 [even though that rate still isn't particularly good]?” The reliever does own a superior though still bad 4.85 BB/9 in 432.6 career innings. And even though a 4.85 BB/9 would still put unwanted men on-base, it would be a heck of a lot less of them than he allowed in 2011.
With that in mind, the signing does make an inkling of sense. While Rodney was never truly a “dominant” closer, in his full-season as one in 2009, he did his job (97.3 Save%). However, in regards to his miraculous 2012 streak, it’s unlikely Rodney will continue to be a Mariano Rivera-clone. His history suggests there will be a [massive] fall-out. But heck, if he doesn’t walk batters at his 2011 rate, at the very least, the volume of boos certainly won’t be as loud in 2012.