Mariners Tidbit 40: The Fernando Rodney Problem

The only thing I care about when it comes to closers is the only thing ANYONE should care about when it comes to closers:  does he get the job done or not?  I don’t want to hear about his advanced metrics, I don’t want to know if he’s lucky or unlucky depending on the defense around him or the BABIP-tasticness of life; I just want to go to bed happy most nights.  His ERA could be a million; I don’t care!  Does he lock down the win in games where the Mariners are leading when he comes in?  Fine.

(That having been said, get ready for an argument that heavily alludes to his BABIP-against and whether he’s been lucky or unlucky so far this year.  I’m nothing if not consistent)

A good trick to determine the effectiveness of a closer is to simply look at the number of appearances where he gives up at least 1 run.  The more zeroes he puts up, the better his season.  No closer is perfect, but if you can limit the damage to a few appearances per year, we’ll all sleep easier at night.

In 2014, Fernando Rodney gave up at least one run in 19 of his 69 appearances.  I think that’s pretty good!  You know, odds are, not all 19 of those appearances constituted a blown save; in fact, he had exactly 3 blown saves (to go with 6 outright defeats, some of which overlapped with the blown saves).  I have no problem with Rodney’s 2014; I think we can all agree it was a rousing success.

In 2015, Fernando Rodney has given up at least one run in 8 of his 20 appearances.  That’s just awful.  He’s already lost two games and blown two saves, and is lucky he didn’t cost us his most recent outing against Tampa when he botched a 3-run lead and was only a couple of feet away from giving up the game-losing grand slam.  The month of May has been particularly bad, with Rodney giving up runs in 6 out of 9 appearances, but none of us could forget the 2-game stretch in April where he blew a 4-run lead in the 9th (not technically a blown save, as it wasn’t technically a “save situation”), only to be bailed out in extras; this game was followed up with an outright blown save & loss against the Dodgers as the Mariners would go on to be swept in that series.

The team has tried to sweep his awfulness under the rug this year, noting that many of his appearances where he’s given up a run hasn’t cost the team anything.  He’s tried to explain away some of his troubles due to rustiness, as he often goes multiple days between appearances.  Either way, the wild bucket ride to Hell that has been the Fernando Rodney Experience has been extra vomit-inducing this year.

He might be giving up a SLIGHTLY higher rate of walks compared to last year, but I really don’t think that’s it.  The eyeball test – from what I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t every single game – leads me to believe that other teams aren’t really squaring him up all that well.  I’ve seen A TON of weakly slapped base hits the other way.  These are hitters who are in between his pitches (swinging too fast for the change up, too slow for the fastball), and as a result are just getting a small piece that happens to find a hole.  Granted, he’s already given up 3 homers (after giving up 3 homers all of 2014), but for the most part he’s getting dinked and dunked to death.

Also, for whatever reason, right handed batters are crushing him to death this year, with a slash line of .340/.373/.511/.883.  Last year, that line looked like this:  .178/.303/.228/.530.  Small sample and everything, but that’s not what you want to see from a power right-handed reliever with a devastating change up, no matter how small the sample size.

Teams are also attacking him early in counts with positive results.  When a batter has seen zero or one pitches in an at-bat (so, 0-0, 0-1, or 1-0 counts), they’re hitting 8/19 (.421) with 2 doubles, a homer, and 6 RBI.  When a batter has seen two pitches or fewer (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 0-2, 2-0 counts), they’re still hitting 14/37 (.378) with another double and two more RBI to throw into the mix.  That’s including 0-2 counts, in which he’s predictably dominant.  These numbers, however, tend to be in line with what teams were doing last year; you either hit Rodney early or you don’t hit him at all.

So, all this leads to the big question:  what should the Mariners do?

We all know what they WILL do; they’re going to keep running him out there until he makes it absolutely impossible to trust him anymore.  To be honest, I think this is the right call.  This team was always going to live and die by its pitching, and there really aren’t a whole lotta options out there.  Yes, Carson Smith has been as good as it gets since being called up to the Major Leagues.  And, I’m not going to pussy-foot around his “readiness” like most people; he’s getting outs and making hitters look idiotic at the plate, HE’S READY.  But, I’ll tell you what, I like him in the role he’s in right now and I’ll tell you why.

The closer is a fabricated, meaningless role in baseball.  The save statistic is absolutely pointless.  What makes the 9th inning any more important than the 8th inning, if the 8th inning sees the heart of the other team’s order, while the 9th sees their bottom three hitters?  Nevertheless, Major League Baseball is as stuffy as it gets (and that’s saying something, when you compare it to the No Fun League and their crackdown on anything even resembling a personality out of its players), and they still hold fast to the importance of established roles on teams.

  • An ideal bullpen must have a designated closer
  • An ideal bullpen must have no fewer than 6 pitchers and no more than 8
  • An ideal bullpen must have no fewer than 1 lefty and no more than 2
  • An ideal bullpen must have a designated 8th Inning Guy

That last point is a little less staunch compared to the other three, but invariably – regardless of who’s coming up to the plate – you’ll see the same guy pitch the 8th inning of any game where a team is holding a 1-3 run lead.  Oftentimes, this 8th inning guy is actually better than the closer, but because of “established roles” and experience in the bigs, the closer is the closer, and the better pitcher is just a nice little bonus that you can use whenever you want.  If you’re a smart team, you’ll use this player against the other team’s best hitters.  Maybe this comes up in the 7th instead of the 8th inning.  I like to think the Mariners have that kind of flexibility with Carson Smith, and I’m happy knowing they can implement him whenever they need to – even if it’s for multiple innings before it’s time for the closer to do his thing.

I still believe in Rodney.  I haven’t seen a remarkable drop-off in velocity, nor have I seen a drop-off in his change up’s ability to make hitters look stupid.  He’s wild, but he’s always wild.  Hitters are squeezing him on these fluke singles and he’s not exactly helping himself out with runners on base.  7 of his 9 walks have come when there’s already at least a runner on; his OPS with runners in scoring position is 1.007.  Teams are taking advantage of his wildness in ways they weren’t doing last year (in 2014, only 15 of his 28 walks came with a runner on; his OPS with runners in scoring position was only .545).  All of this adds up to, I believe, a run of good pitching out of Rodney.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but I’d look for a lot more zeroes being put up from him the rest of the summer.

And that’s all that matters.  Fernando Rodney is an important piece to this team.  If all of this comes down to where his head is at with a 3-run lead compared to a 1-run lead, then he needs to cut that shit out and focus.  But, I think that’s all white noise and people need to forget that mess.  There’s no flip you switch switch you flip that makes you start to bear down and makes you more effective when the shit’s hitting the fan.  It’s all just baseball; it’s a stupid God damn sport and I don’t know why any of us watch.

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