What can the Rays expect from Fernando Rodney in 2012?

When I first heard this morning that the Rays were close to signing Fernando Rodney, my first thought was “Oh. That’s good. The Rays finished off their bullpen with a pitcher with proven late-inning experience.” As the great Yankees blog River Ave Blues calls it, the Proven Closer™ tag. The only thing I could remember about Rodney was him blowing away hitters as closer for the Detroit Tigers. I knew he was signed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but I had absolutely no idea what became of him and I didn’t really care because he was supplanted at closer by the Angels’ standout rookie, Jordan Walden. But what I first took a look at his stats, I was pretty surprised at what I saw. The past four years, Rodney’s ERA has been 4.20 or higher and his FIP has been 4.00 or higher every season, with his topping out at 4.91 in 2008 and his FIP peaking at 4.71 in 2011. His xFIP has gone up every season, going from 4.27 to 4.37 to 4.42 all the way up to 5.09 in 2011. He logged one year as a full-time closer, and that season he did save 37 games for the Tigers, but he posted a 4.40 ERA, a 4.56 FIP, and a 4.37 xFIP. For his career, Rodney doesn’t even have a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio, posting an 8.2 K/9 and a 4.9 BB/9. The bottom line is that Rodney is no more than a decent reliever who happens to be about as good in high leverage situations as he is in medium and low leverage situations. According to Rodney’s Career Splits from Baseball-Reference, Rodney allows a .734 OPS in high leverage, a .688 OPS in medium leverage, and a .722 OPS in low leverage. Rodney is just a decent reliever. The Rays signed him for just over 2 million dollars, not very much even by the Rays standard, and he’ll live up to that contract and be a decent reliever for the Rays in 2012. Luckily for him, he’ll be moving to a pitcher’s friendly ballpark at the Trop with great defense behind him, so the chances are that he’ll manage an ERA under 4.00 for the first time in 6 years. But expecting anything better than what Juan Cruz gave the Rays in 2011 (3.88 ERA, 4.20 FIP) is downright foolish.

To illustrate just how mediocre Rodney is, let’s look at his arsenal of pitches from Texas Leaguers’ Pitch F/X tool. We’ll compare Rodney’s 2008-2010 Pitch F/X data with his 2011 data.

(If you have never seen this type of graph before, please see this post under the similar-looking graph for a quick explanation.)

Rodney’s arsenal is pretty unimpressive. His mid-90′s fastball has some nice movement, and he also throws a changuep, but he isn’t adept at controlling either pitch. The speed differential between those two pitches is how Rodney racks up a lot of his strikeouts. But if you guess fastball or changeup, you basically have a 50-50 chance of guessing right. What Pitch F/X marked as a Two-Seam fastball wasn’t a two-seamer at all- from 2008-2010 it was a changeup that Rodney threw too hard, while in 2011, it was a fastball with a little more movement and slightly less velocity. Rodney tried to mix in a fastball, more so in 2011 than in previėus seasons, but it simply didn’t have enough movement to fool hitters. Rodney’s best pitch is his changeup, but simply because hitters were nearly always guessing fastball.

But at the same time, Rodney is no complete slouch as a pitcher. His control isn’t great, but he gets some nice movement on his fastball and changeup, and even though his K/9 has been just 7.2 the past three seasons, his groundball rate has been well over 50% as the speed differential has helped him generate as weak contact. The high groundball rate will help more as he pitches with the Rays defense behind him.

Fernando Rodney is not a great pitcher, but at just 2 million dollars on a one year deal, he will provide the Rays with some good, not great, relief innings. He’ll fill the role that Juan Cruz filled in 2011 effectively, and occasionally he’ll flash brilliance. But overall, he’ll just be another pitcher in the bullpen. Don’t expect anything big from Fernando Rodney in 2012.

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