On Thursday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, it appeared that everything finally came together for David Price and Fernando Rodney. They were far from perfect, with Price allowing 4 runs (2 earned) and Rodney allowing a pair of baserunners to make his outing too precarious for comfort, but when it mattered most, they took their game to another gear. Price allowed all 4 of his runs in his first 5 frames, but he finished his outing by tossing scoreless innings in the 6th, 7th, and 8th to keep the Rays in the game and give them the opportunity to come back. And when Rodney got into trouble with two outs, two on, and Melky Cabrera at the plate, he reached back for something extra and blew him completely away with a fastball touching 100 MPH twice. Where had this Price and Rodney been all season? Can’t answer that question with any certainty, but one thing was clear: both Price and Rodney were able to get something more on their pitches, and that made all the difference.
The difference was subtle but noticeable for Price. Previously in 2013, he had averaged 94.07 MPH with his fastball. Versus the Jays, though, he was able to get just a little bit more, averaging 94.39 MPH with his fastball including four fastballs that reached 96 MPH. And even in the latter innings of the game, the 6th, 7th, and 8th, he was still going strong, averaging 94.06 MPH with his fastball. On the day, Price’s fastball managed only a linear weights of -.4102, a little bit better than average, and it was really his changeup that did the heavy lifting, managing a -1.499 linear weights. Just 43% of Price’s pitches on the day were fastballs, well below his 55% average for the season. So wasn’t it really the great changeup and not a great fastball that led Price to a good outing? Yes, but only because Price had his fastball to set it up.
Price’s changeup was thrown harder than they had been previously this season, averaging 85.02 MPH compared to the 84.80 MPH mark that it has averaged this season. Price needs all the velocity difference he can get, and if those pitches were at those velocities with his fastball velocity in the lower range, he could get hit hard. But Price was instead making a conscious effort to throw all his pitches harder, maintaining the velocity difference and making all his pitches better. As long as Price is locating his pitches, the more velocity Price can get, the better. Price reaching back for just a little something extra allowed him to throw his changeup and really all of his pitches slightly harder, and that made all the difference. In the 8th inning, Price allowed two flyballs that looked scary off the bat but were caught before the wall for key outs as the hitters got just slightly under them. Both came on 95 MPH fastballs. If they had been even 94.7 MPH, the hitters could have gotten them just a little bit more on the barrel and they very well could have been gone. It was only a subtle difference for Price on Thursday, but he needed every advantage he could get to go 8 strong innings and he was able to find that in his velocity.
When you only throw two pitches like Fernando Rodney does, velocity makes an enormous difference. Early on in 2013, Rodney was clearly missing something. His fastball and changeup averaged just 96.37 MPH and 83.95 MPH compared to 96.88 MPH and 83.24 MPH in 2012. His fastball was softer, forcing him to rely more on his changeup as he threw it 43% of the time entering Thursday compared to 37% last year. He didn’t trust his fastball as much and seemed to go to his changeup in every big spot. In two-strike counts, Rodney went from throwing his changeup 50% of the time to 59%. And the more Rodney threw his changeup, the more hitters learned to lay off it, leading to more walks and more hard-hit balls as Rodney had to go back to his fastball when behind in the count. On Thursday, though, Rodney’s trust in his fastball was finally restored and the results were incredible.
Just 9 of Rodney’s 17 pitches were fastballs, but instead of being tentative, he was telling hitters “here’s my best, just try to hit it.” His fastball averaged an unbelievable 99.2 MPH, never dipping below 97 MPH. Yes, not a single one of his fastballs was as low as his season average. And that was never more the case than against Melky Cabrera in a situation where Rodney has seemed to falter endlessly this year. Rodney started Cabrera with two changeups, one a ball and one a strike, putting him in a situation where he basically had to throw a fastball. He threw it, all right, but it was a thing of beauty, coming in at 100 MPH for strike two as Cabrera fouled it away. As the at-bat progressed, Rodney threw four more pitches, and three of them were fastballs, including another 100 MPH fastball that Rodney forced Cabrera to swing through for strike three. Suddenly in the middle of the at-bat, Rodney regained the confidence in his fastball that was so critical to his success all of last season, and Cabrera couldn’t do anything against him Fernando Rodney was never going to repeat the 0.60 ERA that he managed last season. However, he showed last year that he has a chance to be an extremely good pitcher for years to come, and if he throws the ball the way he did against the Blue Jays, that could very well fall into place.