Last month, the season preview piece for Jeff Niemann showed how the Rays moved Niemann from the extreme first base side of the rubber and more toward third base near the midway point of last season. The move helped him locate his pitches in more favorable parts of the strikezone and helped him generate groundballs at rates he had not seen during his professional career.
Rodney's signing was one that caused many people to react by scratching their heads, laughing, or state that this would be yet another example of the Rays taking someone's trash and turning it into their own treasure. The most even-handed take on the signing came from The Score's Matt Klaassen who had this to say:
But what about that Fernando Rodney signing? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not a scout (and I’m guessing you aren’t, either), and scouting reports are, of course, essential to any player evaluation. That said, just looking at the numbers, I do not see what the Rays see in him. Sure, it’s just a small one-year deal, but what attracted the Rays to Rodney?
He has not had a seasonal FIP under four since 2007, which is pretty bad for a reliever. It is not as if he has shown the skill to outperform his FIP, either. So then I looked to see if he might have a big split, which can make a reliever useful (and Joe Maddon pays attention to that sort of thing). Nope, he is not that great against righties. Perhaps all those change-ups mean he is a reverse split guy? Well… No. This is a case where not having a big platoon split makes a guy less valuable.
Yet, if you are going to give one team the "benefit of the doubt," it would be the Rays. That is not to say that I think Rodney is a good reliever just because the Rays signed him. I do not. However, I am curious to see what happens. And that is because, as we say, the Rays have "earned" the benefit of the doubt.
J.P. Howell, Joaquin Benoit, Juan Cruz, Grant Balfour, and Randy Choate are several examples of how the Rays should have the benefit of the doubt when signing relievers, but Rodney presents of the the bigger challenges of bullpen restorations. Rodney was coming off a season in which he walked more than he struck out and he had not seen a walk rate lower than 4.6 since the 2006 season. At the time of the signing, GM Andrew Friedman said Rodney's stuff was "top notch," and Tommy Rancel did a fine job showing the silver lining of the signing in a piece in early January.
What we do know is that information is king. From statistics to scouting, the Rays crave knowledge. With that in mind, one would think pitching coach Jim Hickey's track record of harnessing wild arms like Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit factored into the decision. There’s also a chance that an in-house analysis like Josh Kalk found a mechanical flaw they feel can be fixed. More likely, it was a mix of ideas and information that went into the decision. And while most players do not undergo sweeping changes at age 35, relief pitcher is probably the easiest position to make a transformation.
That process appears to have been happening right under our nose as R.J's photo on Twitter last evening points out.
The photo on the left is from last season while the photo on the right is from the homestand against the Yankees. The data at BrooksBaseball validates the photo as well:
The overhead views of Rodney's pitches help show why a slide on the rubber would be beneficial to his efforts:
Shifting him toward the extreme first base side of the rubber would seemingly allow him to work the outer half of the plate more effectively and let the run on his fastball start over the plate and run away from it as it did against Raul Ibanez this weekend rather than start on the outer half and then run out of the zone as this type of pitch would have last year:
The early returns are promising on Rodney's fastball outcomes. For his career, he has had a 18.9% Whiff/Swing rate on the pitch but that number currently sits at 25% for this season and the ones that have been put into play have all been ground balls.