Kyle Farnsworth’s elbow discomfort not only landed him on the disabled list, but opened up one of the game’s more interesting early season position battles. Under normal circumstances, Joe Maddon would not have to choose between Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta to close out games, yet here he is, doing just that on a day-to-day basis. So far, Rodney looks to be the leader, having notched three saves in three opportunities—two due to Peralta’s ineffectiveness. The most recent came on Wednesday, with Rodney tossing a one-two-three inning after the Rays came back in the ninth inning.
Many questioned the Rays when they signed Rodney to a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal this past winter. At the time, I wrote:
Whatever the Rays see is a hypothesis to be tested, just as when the Royals signed Jeff Francoeur or made countless other moves. Realistically, many attempted rejuvenations fail to make a difference—hence the skepticism that greets the idea of Rodney returning to above-average form. Still, if there is a role in which a 35-year-old can transform himself, it’s as a reliever. Just ask Kyle Farnsworth or Joel Peralta, two of Friedman’s gambles from last winter who turned out well.
Unless you believe in giant coincidences, it appears that the Rays did have a tinker in mind when they signed Rodney. That tinker is only visible to the naked eye with the added context of a comparable image:
On the left is Rodney’s set-up from a game in late-April, 2011. On the right is Rodney from this past Saturday. For those struggling to see a difference beyond uniforms, look at Rodney’s foot placement relative to the rubber. Whereas Rodney is closer to the third base side in the older image, he is now all the way to the first base side. Here is another set of images to compare, these from when Rodney is pushing off the rubber:
This change appears to be a radical shift for Rodney. Take a look at the below chart, generated by PITCHf/x data (via Brooks Baseball), that shows Rodney’s horizontal release points by year. At no point has Rodney been this far to the first base side in the PITCHf/x era.
So what does this all mean? It could be nothing. Players tweak things all the time; adjusting is part of being a baseball player. But with Rodney, you can’t help but wonder if this might help his sinker. Now, instead of having the pitch run too far inside to right-handed batters, it could nestle on the inside corner, making it a more attractive pitch for a batter to swing at. It’s also possible that Rodney’s arm-side control on his other pitches will improve because of the move. Now, it is unlikely that Rodney will turn into a relief ace because he slid over a few inches, but it might make enough of a difference that he can hold onto the closer’s job until Farnsworth returns.