One of the biggest storylines of the draft season was the explosion of the “pocket aces” strategy. Championed by the incredibly successful BatFlipCrazy, the idea centers around taking ace pitchers with your first two selections. The strategy gained immense popularity and spawned similar ideas such as the “Full House” approach and other starting pitcher-heavy early draft strategies. I was originally a huge fan of these strategies and the logic behind them but as the draft season went on, I decided to take more a contrarian approach. While no one cares about my fantasy teams, I focused on taking one starter early, taking at least one top closer, and then loaded up on arms in the 10-15 round range after building a solid offensive base.
This new approach led to continually target the same pitchers in the middle rounds. One of my favorite targets was Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. E-Rod was looking like one of the better young pitchers in baseball after two very good seasons in 2018 and 2019. He peaked with a 200 inning season in 2019 with 19 wins, making him a fantastic fantasy pitcher. However, Rodriguez had COVID last season causing him to miss all of the 2020 season due to heart issues related to his illness. The issues seemed to sap him of his strength. As a result, I felt Rodriguez’s draft price was far below his talent level due to concerns about his health. To this point in the season, E-Rod has looked solid, posting a 5-2 record with a career-low BB% while still striking out a hitter per inning. However, his 4.70 ERA has been a bit of a disappointment overall. FIP and other common ERA estimators are extremely high on E-Rod, as they see low walk numbers and a high BABIP as the drivers of his relative failures. However, StuffERA seems to think the high ERA is deserved, as Rodriguez’s 5.55 StuffERA is fifth-worst in baseball min 250 pitches. So the question is, which Rodriguez should we expect the rest of the season.
When looking over all of Rodriguez’s Data Monster metrics, the biggest change I can see is that despite his actual swinging strike rate remaining the same as the beginning of his career, his xWhiff is actually a career-high at 12.1%. Usually, these types of changes come from a change in location or pitch mix. For Rodriguez, the biggest difference when looking at his metrics is the decreased usage of his four-seam fastball, which coincides with an increase in both his changeup and cutter usage. The change-up which was previously, his best pitch has struggled to generate whiffs so far this season. Back in 2019, he was able to generate a whiff on 37% of all swings on the changeup, and thus far in 2021, that number has dropped all the way to 26%.
As you can see from the chart above, Rodriguez is actually locating the changeup really well for whiffs, he is managing to keep the pitch down in the zone for the most part and has avoided truly terrible locations with the pitch. However, as stated above the whiffs just have not been there at the same level. There doesn’t seem to be a major difference in the movement profile of the pitch but there has been some anecdotal evidence of the new ball impacting changeups. If the pitch is not able to generate swings and misses at the same rate as before, it could spell bad news for Rodriguez.
Overall, the main reason that StuffERA does not love Rodriguez is his In_wOBA. Rodriguez has one of the worst In_wOBA’s in all of baseball with only Luis Castillo and Kyle Hendricks posting worst figures than him. This does not seem to be a location-based issue it seems to be because hitters seem to be barrelling more balls against him. The interesting part of the trend for Rodriguez is that he does not appear to be allowing harder contact in terms of exit velocity, it just seems to be the same exit velocity is paired with an increased sweet spot% (balls hit in optimal launch angles). Looking over the numbers, it seems that hitters are performing significantly better than expected on both the four-seam and cutter thus far.
In terms of pitch locations, it certainly appears that a few too many of these pitch types are being left over the middle of the plate which could be a cause for concern for the left-hander. However, when it comes to fastballs, as you can see from the chart the danger zone takes up the majority of the strike zone, as a result, Rodriguez’s fastball xLwOBA of 0.3496 is not particularly high compared to other pitchers. So based on this, I believe that there is room for Rodriguez to regress to the mean on his fastball results.
Overall, betting on Rodriguez to succeed is buying in on positive regression. In terms of pure skills, nothing seems to be different for E-Rod thus far, hitters have just seemed to have better-batted ball luck than expected. Based on everything we know, this should regress to normal and better days should be ahead for Rodriguez. Typically, I would love to see something more tangible than good/bad luck when deciding on a pitcher, but for those who were buying in on Rodriguez post-COVID, what he has shown so far has certainly been positive.