Francisco Rodriguez has easily been one of the top closers in baseball since he was handed the full-time job back in 2005, and before that he was one of the game’s top relievers, period. This is why it’s no surprise that he’s at the center of the discussions as to why the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were able to win 100 games this year-but was 2008, the year he set the record for most saves in a season, the best year of his career, or should we be worried that this isn’t the same K-Rod we watched grow up in front of us on national television?

Francisco Jose Rodriguez was signed by the Anaheim Angels as an undrafted 16-year-old free agent in 1998. The Venezuelan native would get his first taste of professional baseball the next year with the Angels’ Pioneer League affiliate, where he would mow down Rookie-league hitters: 12.0 K/9, 5.8 H/9, and 0.2 HR/9 along with 3.7 BB/9 over 51 2/3 innings pitched, mostly as a starter. He would jump to Short-Season A-ball at Boise in the Northwest League for five innings to end the year, where he would strike out six against a lone walk.

This performance was more than enough to get the attention of Baseball America, who rated Frankie Rodriguez as the second-best prospect in the Angels organization; it’s hard not to get excited about a 17-year-old who posts strikeout numbers like that at such a young age. Despite elbow tenderness that kept him out until late May, the Angels would skip over full-season Low-A and move Rodriguez directly to High-A Lake Elsinore for the 2000 season, a decision that would not come back to haunt them. The 18-year-old right-hander whiffed 11.1 hitters per nine with 4.5 BB/9, but he was nearly impossible to hit at 6.1 per nine, and kept homers to a minimum with 0.3 per nine over 64 innings pitched and 12 starts.

A performance like that put Rodriguez on more than just the Angels prospect map, with Baseball America ranking him the 72nd-best prospect in all of baseball, but warning that there was no reason to rush him from the California League given his age and his struggles with elbow tendonitis and a tender forearm. The feeling at the time was that his deceptive arm motion may have contributed to those injuries, as it was not a pretty thing to behold mechanics-wise. Rodriguez’s stuff at this point was filthy though, with a fastball that usually sat in the mid-90s but topped out in the upper 90s, along with the devastating slider that we know from his time in the majors. At this point he also had a changeup in his arsenal, though it was nowhere near as developed as the other two pitches were.

That stuff would not serve him well during his first full season as a pro. A return to the California League-this time pitching for Rancho Cucamonga-went somewhat poorly. Pitching in one of the Cal League’s most infamous bandboxes, Rodriguez gave up 10.4 hits per nine and saw his normally low home-run rate rocket up to just over one per nine; he still managed to punch out 11.6 batters per nine, and his walks, though high at 4.4 per nine, were right around the rates we had seen from him at that point in his career. When you combine the high rate of hits with that walk rate though-something Rodriguez had not had to deal with up to that point in his career-you end up with a WHIP of 1.60 and an ERA of 5.38, a significant departure from his previous stints.

This hurt his stock slightly, as he fell off of Baseball America’s Top 100 list and dropped to seventh overall among prospects in the Angels organization. His elbow was one of the culprits again, as it kept him from pitching until late into May for the second year in a row, and he was once again wild, with 17 wild pitches and problems with his command. Though he utilized his changeup, he did not do so often enough-left-handers hit .327 against him despite his dominance over right-handers, and Baseball America felt that he was going to end up as a reliever if that third pitch didn’t come through for him.

That’s exactly what the Angels had in mind after watching him struggle as a starter with arm problems though, and they converted Rodriguez into a full-time reliever starting with his 2002 stint at Double-A Arkansas. Rodriguez dominated the Texas League, and subsequently the Pacific Coast League following a promotion to Triple-A:

Year Team            IP    K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9  H/9
2002 Arkansas(AA)   41.1  13.3  3.3  4.1  0.4  7.0
2002 Salt Lake(AAA) 42.0  12.6  2.8  4.5  0.2  6.4
2002 Anaheim(MLB)    5.2  20.7  3.2  6.5  0.0  4.8

Rodriguez took to relieving like there was no other job for him, blowing through the two higher levels of the minors against much older competition. The 20-year-old would finish the regular season on the Angels, and would be brought onto their playoff roster as a “secret weapon” of sorts, since major league hitters had little to no experience against him. His run in the playoffs was masterful, with 28 batters sat down on strikes in just 18 2/3 innings pitched, and with Rodriguez picking up an incredible five wins (and one loss) over the course of three post-season series-his first victories at the major league level. He was the youngest hurler in 32 years to pitch in the World Series, and the youngest to come away victorious in one of those contests. For this, he earned the nickname “K-Rod”-a play on A-Rod, but with the K for his strikeouts.

The cat was obviously out of the bag in regards to Rodriguez now, and he was rated as the tenth-best prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2003 season. Yes, with five playoff wins and a World Series title to his credit, coming off one of the most impressive displays of post-season pitching in recent memory, he was still dealing with prospect lists. It was somewhat surreal to see in action, but he had not accrued the playing time necessary to shed his prospect status as of yet. Baseball America went as far as to compare the Rodriguez/Troy Percival tag team in the Angels’ pen to the previous decade’s John Wetteland/Mariano Rivera duo, but warned once again that Rodriguez’ mechanics might prove harmful at some point, despite all of the good that the deception they caused did for his performance. PECOTA would forecast Rodriguez for 64 2/3 innings pitched in 2003, with 63 strikeouts, 31 walks, and a 4.17 ERA.

Rodriguez would do a bit better than that, with 9.9 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, and an ERA of 3.03. His FIP was 3.93 though, close to the projected ERA of PECOTA, thanks to 1.3 homers per nine, the highest rate of Rodriguez’s major league career to this day. He followed that with a 2004 season that ranks as his best season ever, as he would toss 84 innings with a 1.82 ERA that was actually higher than his expected ERA via FIP (1.64), thanks to an impressive array of peripherals: 13.2 whiffs per nine, 3.5 walks per nine, and a homer rate that saw more than a full long ball per nine shaved off thanks to a minuscule 3.1 percent HR/FB. Despite the success he has had since 2004, he has never had another campaign that came within even one run of FIP to that year. Since he wasn’t used in high-leverage situations though-his LEV score was 1.55-his WXRL of 5.197 doesn’t appear as impressive as it should given his peripherals.

The 2005 through 2007 seasons had many similarities and just slight differences in performance from Rodriguez:

Year Team        IP    K/9 BB/9 K/BB  HR/9  BABIP  FIP
2005 LA Angels  67.1  12.2  4.3  2.8   0.9  .278  3.09
2006 LA Angels  73.0  12.1  3.5  3.5   0.7  .299  2.72
2007 LA Angels  67.1  12.0  4.5  2.7   0.4  .320  2.70

While his walk rates fluctuated, jumping between a more average and acceptable 3.5 per nine and a poor 4.5, his homer rate steadily decreased, in part due to the reintroduction of the changeup he had left in the minors with his role as a starting pitcher. While the pitch did not help his strikeout rates, he did manage to drop left-handed opponents’ slugging from .400 in 2006 to just .252 in 2007, the year he truly brought back the off-speed offering, one he threw nearly 10 percent of the time. While his performance against lefties had not been poor, it was worse than his domination of the leagues right-handers, so an additional weapon with which to fight them couldn’t hurt.

At this point, K-Rod was still throwing in the mid-90s, with his slurvy slider his secondary pitch and his changeup in use primarily against left-handed hitters. In 2008, he broke break Bobby Thigpen‘s record, and it should be noted that Thigpen’s name came up in relation to K-Rod in both the 2007 and 2008 editions of Baseball Prospectus, with the ’08 edition saying “…given the Angels run context most years, he may get a shot at Bobby Thigpen’s single-season mark of 57.” Record or no, he would have his record-breaking performance as a somewhat different kind of reliever. His strikeouts dropped to 10.1 per nine, still excellent, but a significant dip from the K-Rod we know of. That was while his walk rates remained in the same sorry state we’re used to; when you strike out three times as many hitters as you give free passes too, 4.5 is acceptable, but when that rate dips to just a bit over two to one, you begin to worry. Luckily for Rodriguez and the Angels, he continued to be difficult to hit homers off of, with a 0.5 per-nine rate and a 6.2 percent HR/FB, somewhat counteracting the walk rate and giving him an FIP of 3.22, a full run higher than his 2.24 ERA.

Where did the strikeouts go? Rodriguez’ velocity has dropped roughly two or three mph on his fastball, and was in the low 90s most of the season. After being heavily reliant on his slider the past two years, he cut back on using it significantly, from 39.2 percent to 31.6, replacing the pitch with even more changeups (up from 9.5 percent to 16.8). While he still dominated right-handers, he was not as successful against southpaws, as they posted an ISO of .109 against him, a poor showing relative to 2007’s .065 mark.

This is a case of being picky, as nine out of 10 pitchers would kill to have “down” years such as the one K-Rod just had, but the important thing to take from the dip in strikeouts and the slight change against left-handers is that Rodriguez is about to enter the free agent market for the first time and is going to be paid a truckload of money, and may not be able to replicate the performances he has given the Angels in the past. This is of little consequence to the present day, where Rodriguez is still a dominating force at closer for a playoff team which has its sights set on the World Series, but it could be an issue down the road if his velocity continues to dip-though as we will see, there may be a reason behind the dip that’s less of a problem than you think.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

K-Rod set the single season saves record this year at 62, which most sabermetricians scoff at from an evaluative standpoint. While the counting stat itself is not all that important, it is significant in the sense that Rodriguez performed well enough to be utilized in the record number of save situations all year long. The sheer numbers of saves or blown saves-his number of blown saves was the third worst total ever-do not deem him the best or worst closer on their own, and it is easier to make a case that he was towards the middle or bottom of the pack than the top tier. Additionally, while he did manage to set a record in the metric that supposedly measures his worth, this was actually Rodriguez’s worst statistical season.

As Marc mentioned, his K/9 had steadily decreased from 13.2 to 12.0 over the last four years, and fell significantly again, to 10.1 this season. With an identical walk rate to last year, his controllable skills took a hit. Though his ERA was a very nice 2.24, the decline in skills resulted in a 3.22 FIP. While an FIP that low would normally be considered fantastic, when put in the context of K-Rod’s career, it is quite poor; the highest it has ever been. On top of that, his 1.29 WHIP and .219 BAA, again very respectable and solid numbers, are career worsts.

Frankie’s BABIP this year was .302, down from last year’s .320 and right around the .299 from 2006. It has essentially been proven that elite relievers are able to sustain BABIPs below .300, but this does not seem to be the case for K-Rod. Not that his league average BABIP deems him below the elite level, but rather that something in his repertoire is preventing him from having the success in this area experienced by the likes of, say, Troy Percival or Mariano Rivera.

Rodriguez has the highest leverage index for any reliever in baseball at 2.57, well above the next-closest reliever. This means that, on average, his appearances have been in the most critical situations. For reference, an average leverage index is 1.0, and many starting pitchers will hover around this mark. With such a high number, we may expect Rodriguez to lead the league in WPA, when plate appearances in crucial situations are worth more than just one plate appearance; he actually finished sixth in this department, behind Brad Lidge, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, and Carlos Marmol.

His pitch selection has shifted a bit over the last few seasons, which is interesting given his drop-off in velocity this year. In 2006, his fastball usage was split at 57 percent to righties, and 53 percent to lefties; in ’07, 60 percent and 40 percent; and this year, 59 percent and 43 percent. He rarely throws his changeup to right-handers, but has gradually increased its usage to lefties, going from four to 20 to 27 percent from 2006-08. His slider to righties has dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent in this span, while it accounted for just 28 percent of his deliveries to lefties this year, down from the 38 percent of years past.

K-Rod’s ability to dominate lefties diminished a bit this year, as their ISO experienced a significant increase. His percentage of fastballs to them remained stagnant, while he incorporated more changeups at the expense of sliders. The movement and velocity of his pitches were virtually identical to both righties and lefties, though his heater has lost some velocity and movement from a year ago. His release point is more consistent against lefties as well, with a standard deviation of 0.15, compared to the 0.23 to righties. Given his utter domination against righties we may expect the reverse; however, when we remember his questionable mechanics, it is likely quite hard for a hitter to even pick up his release point. Perhaps Will can delve further into the velocity drop-off and the questionable mechanics.-Eric Seidman

Health Report

Three miles per hour. When a pitcher, especially a power pitcher who features fastball-slider mix, loses something like three miles an hour, everyone starts thinking shoulder problems. That’s likely the case for Francisco Rodriguez, a guy whose mechanics are, shall we say, questionable.

Rodriguez began the season with little explanation for his reduced velocity. He had lingering problems with his ankles early in the year, leading him to use his arm even more to generate velocity, and his average fastball was down near 90. Once the ankle troubles cleared up, he was able to get back up near his normal velocity; during the year, he showed that he could get to the mid-90s when needed, but he no longer lived there. His increased use of the change was a bit overblown, and only came at the expense of the slider, not the fastball. Rodriguez actually has a history of spring training leg injuries which most put down to a lack of off-season conditioning, though Rodriguez’s winter-ball play could indicate that it’s more a matter of fatigue than conditioning.

Fatigue and usage patterns are also of interest here. Rodriguez has never been used heavily, which surely goes to explain how he’s survived such violent mechanics. This year, however, the injury to his ankle may have helped him. Early in the season, trainers and pitching coaches worked on smoothing his landing, mostly to take some of the pressure off of the ankle and allow him to pitch. By doing so, some of the ‘whip’ in his arm came out, resulting in the lower velocities. When he tries to get more velocity on the ball, he changes his arm action, but not that of his lower body. This season, he glides more, stepping over and through the plant leg rather than stuffing it into the ground and vaulting on it. He also has an exceptionally long stride, extended even more this season than in the past. Use of longer cleats helped him this year as well, something that runs counter to what many pitchers do.

Overall, Rodriguez still has a lot of energy in his motion, but the upshot is that the injury to his ankle may have been a blessing in disguise. By attempting to protect the ankle, Rodriguez was able to find a more efficient motion while maintaining his effectiveness. The worry with changing anyone’s mechanics is that there may be a loss of effectiveness, or worse, a chain of unintended consequences as muscles, tendons, and ligaments are taxed in new ways due to the new motion. Rodriguez’s slingshot, cross-body motion is still far from ideal, but his timing and energy dissipation make him much less risky now.

Here’s one final thing of interest. Everyone is comparing Rodriguez to Bobby Thigpen, whose save record he broke. Rodriguez finished the regular season with 68 1/3 innings pitched in 76 appearances. To reach that average of something less than an inning per appearance, he had eight appearances of just one out. In contrast, Thigpen went 88 2/3 innings in 77 appearances. While the appearances totals are almost identical, this is the part that interests me. Thigpen went two or more innings eight times, making the contrast in terms of how they were used pretty clear.-Will Carroll

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

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