Pirates pitcher Richard Rodriguez has been rumoured to be a Jays trade target. Are there red flags that the Jays should be aware of .. and potentially concerned about?
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The Blue Jays need bullpen help.
Some of it might come from within, with Ryan Borucki and Julian Merryweather getting closer to their return, and starters like Thomas Hatch (and possibly Nate Pearson?) looking more like relief options with the emergence of Ross Stripling and Alek Manoah as legitimate rotation pieces. But one more back-of-the-bullpen (BoB) arm would provide the Jays with greater flexibility and more insurance if their 2021 run of bad pitcher luck continues.
The problem with trading for a bullpen arm right now is the mlb crackdown on substances (“stickum”) announced on June 3. It has been estimated that over 70% of MLB pitchers have used some form of stickum, so it would be easy to suggest that the change will affect pretty much everyone and that it is therefore not a factor in relative ranking. But the reality is that stickum, and the increased spin it provides, does benefit some pitchers more than others. A team looking to acquire bullpen help is therefore faced with a conundrum: that reliever might have looked good in the past, but will his performance continue at that same high level, post-stickum? And should a team like the Jays pay the high prospect cost that it would take to acquire one of these paragons?
Let’s talk about Richard Rodriguez.
“Skinny Dog” (perro flaco) is one of the top relief arms expected to be on the market this offseason. His name has been linked with the Jays (as well as with almost every contending team – it is a truism that every contending team needs pitching). He will almost certainly be made available, and there will equally certainly be a bidding war for his services.
But should the Jays be in that bidding war?
On first look, it does not appear that RR has been much affected by the crackdown. Since the announcement on June 3, he has pitched in 9 games (9 innings). His ERA is an inflated 5.00, but that is almost entirely due to one game – and his FIP is only 2.71. Over those 9 innings, his K/9 was 10 and his BB/9 was 1. So not quite as uber as the start of his season, but not a major cause for concern, right?
Let’s dig a bit deeper.
RR is basically a two-pitch pitcher. He throws a 4-seam fastball 75-85% of the time and a slider-curve “slurve” the rest. He has a change-up, but rarely throws it. Richard has good separation between his two pitches: his fastball sits in the 93 mph range and his slurve averages about 81. The slurve in particularly nasty – in 2020, batters hit .050/.105/.050 against it, with a 63.6% whiff percentage and a 59.1% K%. (For inquiring minds, those figures have dropped in 2021 -in a small sample size – to “only” 42.9% and 46.2%).
But there are some disturbing trends since the crackdown.
“Bauer Units” are calculated as pitch spin rate divided by velocity. While the stat is still relatively new, writers have said that a change of more than 0.5 is interesting, and more than 1.0 is potentially significant. Rodriguez’s BU for his 4-seam fastball dropped by 0.7 and his slider-curve dropped by more than 3.0. His expected (i.e. fielding- and luck-adjusted) batting average and slugging against both increased for his 4-seamer, which likely led to his doubling the use of his slider.
It might appear that his spin rate on the 4-seamer did not change that much – from 2582 in May to 2541 in June. But there was a significant decline in the second half of June:
There are some areas where there is no data for the slider-curve. In those starts, Richard threw only fastballs.
So what does all this mean?
It may mean nothing. It is entirely possible that this change – in a very small sample size – could be due to weather, or an injury, or RR just not feeling well. But it is potentially troubling that this decline occurred just when the crackdown on stickum started.
So far, his slurve appears to have been unaffected. His xBA and xSLG in June were actually lower than in May. But how long can the slurve continue to be effective if RR does not have a bat-missing fastball to set it up? If the fastball declines, will batters be able to adjust and sit on the slurve (remember, his 4-seamer is only 93 mph) while reacting to the fastball, rather than the other way around?
The bottom line
The decline in Rodriguez’s performance might well be a small sample size blip, and mean nothing at all. But it is troubling, and it makes giving up multiple prospects (and potentially not pursuing other options) that much more problematic. So should the Jays give up on Skinny Dog? Definitely not. But should they tread cautiously, and carefully monitor his performance in the next few weeks to see if the trend continues? Definitely.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.