Friday, September 28, 2012
Fernando Rodney is awesome
By David Schoenfield
Adam Dunn is at the plate, looking relaxed, just another of his more than 7,000 career plate appearances in the major leagues.
Dunn may appear relaxed, but Chicago White Sox fans certainly aren't, as they stand in unison, knowing the season has come down to this: one pitch. The cameras pan to the White Sox dugout and bullpen and Dunn's teammates have that look of dead men walking -- the depressing look of a team falling apart at the wrong time of the year, not knowing or understanding how this happened.
The count is three balls, two strikes, Fernando Rodney on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, his hat askew and beard groomed in a long goatee hanging in a point off his chin. It seems more goofy than intimidating -- if that's what Rodney is going for -- but when you have an ERA of less than 1.00 and have allowed two earned runs since the All-Star break, nobody cares what you look like.
Dunn has one thing on his mind: home run. The Rays lead 3-2, there is a runner on base, the White Sox in danger of losing for the eighth time in nine games. On the previous pitch, Dunn somehow laid off a changeup that dipped just below the knees. The pitch before he was late on a 98-mph fastball.
Fastball or changeup?
Rodney throws the changeup, it drops at the last moment, and Dunn swings over the top of it, and the air is let out of 18,000-plus at The Cell. The White Sox, 3-2 losers, are now two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and their season feels over. The Rays have now won eight in a row and are two games behind the Oakland A's in the wild-card race. They've done this miracle surge thing before.
* * * *
Evan Longoria belted the winning home run off Brett Myers in the ninth inning, a sloppy curveball that a player of Longoria's caliber doesn't miss. But let's write about Rodney, because of his superlative season and because we really haven't talked much about him this year.
There was a tweet I saw as Rodney came in to close it out, from a guy named Dave Hogg (@stareagle): "Guess what, Tigers fans? You are about to relive the past -- it's going to be Fernando Rodney closing out a huge game for Detroit."
That's kind of a joke. Rodney used to pitch for the Tigers but wasn't that great for them. He was the closer one year for them, saved 37 games, but with a 4.40 ERA. The Tigers let him walk and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, where his ERA was 4.32 the past two seasons. He had more walks than strikeouts for them last season. Of course they let him walk. Why wouldn't they?
And now he's put together one of the great relief seasons in history. How do you explain this?
You can't. The Rays have said it's all about improved fastball command from previous years, helping set up that lethal changeup. It's not just the drop in the pitch, but the separation from his fastball; his heater averages 96.1 mph, his changeup 82.4 mph.
"I'm surprised, to tell you the truth, whenever anybody puts the bat on one of them," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told Marc Tompkin of the Tampa Bay Times back in July. "Because this is not just a changeup."
Here's one heat map example of his improved fastball command against left-handed batters, 2011 versus 2012:
Rodney's fastball command has been much improved in 2012.
Before this season, Rodney had averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings in his career (and a staggering 7.9 with the Angels in 2011). In 2012, that number is less than 2 per nine.
That command sets up the change. In 64 plate appearances ending with a changeup, batters are hitting .102 against -- 6-for-59, one double, no home runs, 25 strikeouts. And because of that, Rodney's ERA is now 0.62. Talk about staggering. The lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings: Dennis Eckersely, 0.61 in 1990. With more scoreless inning, Rodney will match exactly Eck's totals: 73.1 innings, nine runs, five earned runs. (To be fair: Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has actually allowed fewer runs per nine innings this year.)
Not bad for a guy the Rays signed for $1.75 million and $2.5 team option (after the Angels had thrown away $11 million on him over two season). Rodney got a chance to close only when Kyle Farnsworth was injured in spring training.
"We thought he was ripe for a good year," Rays manager Joe Maddon had said back in July. "I think it's a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here, and maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments, and all of a sudden, you've got an All-Star."
Score one for the Rays. As our pal Jonah Keri said, in reference to Rodney's infamous post-save celebrations: He is an arrow-firing cyborg.
That cyborg is a reason the Rays are still alive. Very much alive.