At this time last year, Fernando Rodney was not guaranteed anything. Having signed with the Rays on January 4th, he was told that he would compete for the closer role, but that was all. After all, Kyle Farnsworth had just finished his best season in the majors, and Joel Peralta appeared as though he could possibly step into that role. Add Jake McGee, who had been expected to be the Rays closer of the future to the mix, and Rodney seemed as though he would likely be used in middle relief.
Then the 2012 season began. Farnworth was hurt, and Peralta imploded in the first two games. Both times, Rodney came in and extinguished the fires, seizing the job as closer. By the time the season ended, Rodney had appeared in his first All-Star Game, and had crafted a season that was historically great, earning 48 saves with a 0.60 ERA. Not a bad turn around for a player that may well have been on his last chance in the majors.
Prior to his magical run, Rodney had been essentially the definition of a league average reliever, compiling a 22-38 record with 87 saves and a 4.29 ERA. That ERA translated to an ERA+ of 101, just one point above the league average during his time in the majors. What changed for Rodney? Was 2012 just an aberration, or is it possible that he has truly turned into a dominant closer?
When looking at Rodney in 2012, two things truly jump out. First, his K/BB rate was at 5.07, as he struck out 76 batters while only issuing 15 walks. Before that, his career K/BB rate was 1.69, as Rodney walked 233 batters while recording 393 strikeouts. The sudden and dramatic improvement in control may be due to the second point. Before last year, Rondey used a sinker, a change, and a four seam fairly close to the same amount, while mixing in an occasional slider. In 2012, he essentially became a two pitch pitcher, using the sinker 55% of the time and the change 37%. He essentially scrapped the slider, throwing a total of 5 all season, while mixing in the fastball. In fact, Rodney’s change may have been the key to his season. Once he got two strikes on a batter, he threw the changeup 49.5% of the time, resulting in a swing and miss in 28.85% of those situations, and only hit .069 with one extra base hit.
Will opponents adjust to what Rodney did last season? If the end of 2012 is any indication, they may not be able to, as he did not allow a run at all after August 14th. In his last 19 games, opponents only hit .111 against Rodney, as he allowed only 14 baserunners in 19 innings of work. Could this be a harbinger for his 2013 season?
Should he be able to continue to build on the end of 2012, Fernando Rodney may continue to be an elite closer. The keys will likely be his ability to limit walks and his ability to dominate with the change. While he is unlikely to approach his historic season, Rodney may still be one of the top closers in the American League.