Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Oct. 5, 2017: Source – Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
The Boston Red Sox rotation has been the best in baseball through the first eight games of the season. The starters have given up one run or fewer in seven of eight games, with the outlier being a 7.1 inning, three-run effort from Rick Porcello. This rotation has been nothing short of amazing, and it could be getting even better. Eduardo Rodriguez is scheduled to make his first start Sunday, and his presence could elevate this rotation from great to unbelievable.
What Eduardo Rodriguez’ return means for Red Sox
When E-Rod is at his best, he’s one of the best young pitchers in the game. He first came over to the Red Sox after being acquired in the 2014 Andrew Miller trade, and made his major league debut just one year later.
Despite starting the 2015 season with Pawtucket, E-Rod soon became the best pitcher on the 2015 Red Sox. Granted, that starting rotation was horrendous, but it’s still an impressive feat for the then-22-year old. In all, Rodriguez finished his 2015 season with a 3.85 ERA and a 3.92 FIP.
Rodriguez has shown signs of being a top arm in each of the past two seasons, but has yet to string it together for a full season. If he can capture his peak performance, then suddenly the Red Sox rotation has five members capable of being a top-two member of the rotation. However, what’s it going to take for Rodriguez to keep that form?
Start Healthy and Stay Healthy
The biggest issue with Rodriguez has been keeping him healthy. His off-season surgery was mostly seen as a maintenance procedure, but he’s had knee injuries before. The Red Sox were cautious by not making him pitch the first run through the rotation, so he should be relatively healthy.
For the sake of this rotation, that better be the case. History shows that rushing him back before he’s ready is not a wise course of action. In 2016, E-Rod made his season debut late in May after going through a different knee issue. The 2016 rotation was something of a mess, and then-manager John Farrell rolled the dice on E-Rod providing a spark.
That gamble didn’t work out. Rodriguez made his season debut on May 31st, and had an ugly 8.69 ERA after six starts. He gave up four or more earned runs in four different outings, and only made it out of the sixth inning twice.
E-Rod was demoted to Pawtucket to fix his mechanics and get healthy. Three weeks later, he returned to the rotation and looked like the breakout star everyone was expecting. E-Rod finished the season with a 3.24 ERA in fourteen starts after his return to the majors. He was one of the best pitchers on the team, and should have earned a playoff start over Clay Buchholz.
Obviously, the Red Sox training staff knows a lot more about E-Rod’s knee than the general public. However, the staff needs to be sure that he’s as healthy as possible before rushing him back out. Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez have proven to be viable spot starters, and rushing E-Rod backs risks a repeat of 2016.
Trust all three pitches
While getting E-Rod fully healthy rests primarily on the training and coaching staff, E-Rod needs to make sure he’s smart with his pitch selection. Rodriguez has three major league-caliber pitches, and is borderline unhittable when all three are working. However, his slider is what makes him so dangerous.
When Rodriguez doesn’t utilize his slider, his pitches become predictable. Hitters sit on the fastball and changeup, and those pitches alone aren’t good enough to consistently get guys out. That’s not to say E-Rod can only get guys out with the slider – he’s had good outings where he hardly used it. For example, last season against the Baltimore Orioles, E-Rod pitched six shutout innings while throwing his slider just 5.6% of the time.
However, the majority of E-Rod’s bad starts have one thing in common: the absence of a slider. In 2017, Rodriguez had six starts in which he pitches fewer than six innings and gave up four or more earned runs. He used his slider less than 10% of the time in four of those six starts.
Analyzing his pitch selection shows that most of E-Rod’s inconsistency comes from games in which he doesn’t trust his slider. When healthy and not using the slider, his good and bad starts are split roughly 50/50. When he’s healthy and keeping batter guessing, he almost always puts up quality numbers.
Can 2018 be his year?
E-Rod’s career has been something of a bumpy road, but this should be the year he puts it together. The new management staff appears to be perfect for this pitching core, and Rodriguez shouldn’t be an exception to that.
It wasn’t that long ago that E-Rod was one of the top prospects in baseball, and he’s still just 24. He won’t threaten Chris Sale or David Price for the ace position, but he’s certainly capable of taking the third spot in the rotation. Regardless of where he ends up in the rotation, he should push the unit over the top. Sale Price, Porcello, and a healthy Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz should be nearly unhittable. Combine that with a strong offense and a serviceable bullpen, and these Red Sox should be very hard to beat this season.