May 28, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Fernando Rodney (56) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the Miami Marlins at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Miami Marlins 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Slowing Down Velocity Could Get Rays' Fernando Rodney Back on the Fast-Track

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At the beginning of the year, there was concern that Fernando Rodney wouldn’t be able to survive the grind of a 162-game season after pitching in Winter Ball and the World Baseball Classic. People thought that his fastball would not be nearly as explosive and that an arm injury could be a real possibility. It’s only May 29th, but neither of those are major considerations at this point in the year–Rodney seems perfectly healthy with his fastball touching 100 MPH. Yet despite Rodney’s still electric arsenal, his performance has deteriorated significantly, with his ERA jumping from 0.60 last season to 5.48 this year. What has happened? Rodney may have overbearing stuff, but he has lost his ability to control his pitches, watching his walk rate jump from an outstanding 1.8 per 9 innings last year to a scary 8.0 per 9 this year. On Tuesday, Rodney took a step to help change that.

Rodney’s fastball velocity did go down a little bit at the beginning of the season. But over the past month, it has lit up the radar guns as much as ever. So far in May, Rodney’s fastball has averaged 97.21 MPH according to Brooks Baseball. The issue has been that he has thrown it for a strike just 55% of the time. In his last appearances against the Marlins, though, his fastball dipped to 96.17 MPH, with not a single pitch registering as high as 97.21 MPH. But despite the reduced velocity, Rodney actually pitched as well as ever, tossing a 1-2-3 inning with two groundouts and a strikeout. He threw his fastball for a strike 7 of 10 times, but it wasn’t just that. He used the pitch to generate two swings-and-misses, a 20% whiff rate compared to his 7.5% average in May, as superior location compensated for the lack of velocity. However, Rodney’s improvement becomes even more notable when you consider his changeup.

The most impressive part of Rodney’s outing was that he managed to succeed while throwing his changeup just 5 times among his 15 pitches (33%) compared to his 45% average in May. It was a good thing he did because he didn’t have a great feel for his changeup, throwing it for a strike just 2 of 5 times, and he could have been primed for another horrific outing if he was forced to rely on it too heavily. Rodney’s fastball was slower, but improved control tied his entire arsenal together and helped him pitch extremely well even without much of a changeup. Performances like he had against Miami have been few and far between for Rodney, but you have to hope that this one could start a trend.

The question is obvious: did Rodney make a conscious adjustment or did he just not have great stuff on Tuesday? Whatever the answer is, it’s clear that Rodney has to find a way to throw strikes like he did against the Marlins in order to succeed moving forward and maybe toning down his fastball could help him do that. Even if reducing his fastball velocity will make Rodney a little less dominant and give him a smaller margin for error when he makes mistakes, if it helps him throw more strikes it’s a change he has to make. We thought that Rodney throwing more softly would be a sign of tiredness and a harbinger of ill health, but maybe it could instead be the adaptation Rodney needs to make to find success once again.

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