When you win a World Series like the Braves just did, the moves that didn’t work throughout the season don’t really matter, at least not in retrospect. That’s pretty much where things stand with Richard Rodriguez, the right-handed reliever the Braves acquired midseason to fortify their bullpen.
After months of inconsistent performance from their bullpen, specifically from the right-hand side, President of Baseball Operations Alex Anthopoulos sought the strengthen the relief corps by adding another high leverage arm. Down to the last minutes of the Trade Deadline, Anthopoulos swung a deal with the Pirates for their closer at the time, Richard Rodriguez. The price wasn’t particularly cheap. Because Rodriguez came with multiple years of team control, the Pirates were looking for real talent back in any deal. The Braves agreed to part with long-time prospect/farmhand Bryse Wilson. Wilson spent most of his time in Atlanta’s system as one of their top pitching prospects, but had stalled out a bit at the top level and was shuttled back and forth between the minors and majors as needed. Anthopoulos felt is was time pull the plug and get value for Wilson while he could, and the trade was completed. Braves also included 23-year-old right-handed pitcher Ricky DeVito, a lower-ranked prospect coming off an elbow injury in the deal.
The expectations for Rodriguez were perhaps sky high, because he had dominated in Pittsburgh, putting up 1.3 fWAR, a 2.82 ERA, and a 2.60 FIP prior to the trade. In 3 season and over 190 career games with the Pirates, Rodriguez had a 2.98 ERA/3.50 FIP. He also had held opponents to a .221/.280/.350 slash line while striking out 218 hitters and only walking 52. By every measure we use to judge pitchers, Rodriguez had spent the first three-plus seasons of his career being an astounding reliever (though he had a blip in 2019 that his 2018, 2020, and early part of 2021 drowned out), and justifiably, that’s what the Braves thought they were getting when they traded for him.
However, Rodriguez’ xFIP in 2021, before the trade, was a concerning 4.73. His strikeout rate had plummeted from its 2018/2020 levels, and while he wasn’t walking anyone, he was giving up an insane fly ball rate of nearly 60 percent while not having them leave the yard.
Rodriguez’s 2021 performance with Atlanta highlights a game-wide shift in understanding of how pitcher’s stats work. 20 years ago, his 3.12 ERA with he Braves would’ve been seen as a solid contribution, and there’s almost zero chance he would’ve been non-tendered. But this is 2021 and ERA by itself is a pretty terrible way to judge a pitcher. In his 26 innings with the Braves, Rodriguez posted a 6.17 FIP and a 6.29 xFIP while only striking out nine batters and giving up six home runs. Not only were the results bad, but the process wasn’t any better. Rodriguez saw a drastic drop in his overall spin rates after the league cracked down on the use of sticky substances on the mound, leaving little confidence there was going to be much improvement. Throwing basically only one pitch, a 93 mph fastball, getting no strikeouts, no groundballs, giving up homers, all with terrible spin rates is how you find yourself getting non-tendered with a 3.94 ERA. Rodriguez posted -0.5 fWAR in those 26 innings, which is intensely bad.
What went right? What went wrong?
For Rodriguez, it came down throwing his fastball nearly 90 percent of the time and almost exclusively up (but not that up) in the zone. It’s not a good enough fastball to get swings and misses, as it isn’t thrown very hard and relies on its horizontal, rather than vertical, motion to surprise hitters. Where Rodriguez was getting weak flies with Pittsburgh, the balls in the air turned into home runs and extra-base hits with Atlanta. Opponents slugged almost .500 against him after joining the Braves, and since he really didn’t have a secondary pitch to fall back on, it was tough to see how the situation was ever going to get better. Between not having the sticky stuff to help his spin rates, not having any sort of breaking pitch to lean on, and not having the greatest command of his fastball, the needle Rodriguez had to thread to be successful was impossible to hit with any regularity.
Road to 2021 Title
Reviewing Rodriguez’s postseason contributions is a pretty quick task. He didn’t have any. He was left off the NLDS roster, the NLCS roster, and the World Series roster, which in retrospect, was a good indicator for what his future in Atlanta looked like.
Despite the poor performance overall, Rodriguez finished with positive WPA and cWPA as a Brave. His highest WPA/cWPA outing in a Braves uniform was the one where he pitched probably least to type — on August 11, in the top of the 10th with the magical runner placed on second, he kept the Reds off the board, striking out Eugenio Suarez and then getting two straight grounders to escape the inning and help set up Ozzie Albies’ eventual game-winning homer.
Rodriguez was officially non-tendered on Tuesday, making him a free agent and available to sign with any team. I guess it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Braves could bring him back on a cheaper deal, but that would surprise me. Cutting him loose after giving up Bryse Wilson for him a few months ago shows they don’t see much hope for his current profile, and considering he skipped out on basically all of the World Series celebrations tells me he’s off to another team in 2022. Wherever he goes, he needs to find an approved sticky substance to help him get his grip back and he probably needs to find a second pitch to keep hitters off his fastball so much. Best of luck, Rich Rod.