Fernando Rodney Seizes the Closer Role

By Robbie Knopf

With Kyle Farnsworth out for who knows how long, the Rays needed to find a reliable closer. Don’t call him reliable just yet, but it’s clear that the Rays closer is Fernando Rodney.

It’s always nice to have multiple closers in your bullpen. The Rays saw the Yankees with Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano locking down the 7th through 9th innings on a regular basis and desired the same type of thing. The Rays were not about to splurge for a ridiculous reliever contract that would cripple their ballclub. But they saw a player in their price range and jumped at the chance to sign him: Fernando Rodney.

What do you think of when you hear the name Fernando Rodney? What comes to my mind is Rodney as the closer of the Detroit Tigers. For most people who have been fans of the game long enough and ardently enough to remember Rodney in that role, I presume the same is true. With that in mind, guess how many career saves Rodney has (entering Wednesday 4/11/12). When you’ve come up with a guess, click here.

How close was your guess? In any event, you probably guessed too high. We picture Rodney as the closer for the Tigers for a whole bunch of years, but he really was the Tigers’ full-time closer for just one year, 2009, when he saved 37 games, enough to get him a 2-year, 11 million dollar contract with the Angels the following offseason. Fernando Rodney is one of those players in sports who everyone thinks is better than he really is. For his career, Rodney has a 4.27 ERA (102 ERA+, meaning he was 2% better than league average adjusted to ballpark). That is pretty darn mediocre. His 4.16 career FIP and 96 career FIP (4% better than league average) aren’t much better. For his career, Rodney has struck out 8.2 batters per 9 innings, but he was walked 4.9, well below a 2 to 1 ratio, and allowed a 0.8 HR/9. Even in 2009, Rodney posted a 4.40 ERA (104 ERA+) and a 4.56 FIP (102 FIP-) as he posted just a 7.3 K/9, a 4.9 BB/9, and a 1.0 HR/9. Fernando Rodney is not so impressive of a pitcher at all.

But that’s why FIP is not the be-all stat. For his career, Fernando Rodney has a 49.1% groundball rate among the batted balls he has allowed. Since 2009, that rate has been an impressive 52.6%. And that’s what made the Rodney signed make so much sense for the Rays. The Rays defense converted a higher percentage of batted balls into outs than any team in baseball in 2011 and by a wide margin, 73.5% compared to 72.2% by the second-place Rangers and the 71.0% league average. The Rays were particularly proficient at fielding groundballs, converted 77.8% for outs compared to the 76.5% league average. If Rodney can force groundballs, it will help the Rays win games.

Fernando Rodney is not your ideal closer. He’s not going to strike everybody out. He suffers through bouts of wildness at times and allows a few too many home runs. But he’s a veteran presence on the mound who knows how to keep major league hitters off-balance, and that’s all the Rays are asking him to do. We’re still hoping that Farnsworth comes back soon and can return to the player who was a revelation at closer for the Rays in 2011. But while Rodney is in the closer, he has the ability to stay composed and record big outs, and even if his final numbers won’t be as sparkling as we would like, he will get the job done.